Courses

REL 102The Meaning of Life

Last offered Fall 2016

As Henry David Thoreau put it, "The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation," attempting to fill the void of their existence with sex, money, ephemeral amusements, and the steady accumulation of unnecessary possessions - basically killing time until the day they die. For some people this might seem to be enough, but this course is for those of us who lie awake at night wondering things like: "Why are we here?" "What does it mean to live a good life?" "How can I be happy?" "What is our duty to others?" "What really matters?" and the biggest question of them all: "What is the Meaning of Life?" This course will trace the diverse responses to these important questions offered by philosophers and religious thinkers in different cultures and time periods. We will read their texts critically and discuss how they can be directly relevant to our lives. Students will also be introduced to abstract theorizing in Religious Studies about how different cultures and traditions have historically come to live meaningfully. Authors and texts to be read may include Aristotle, Hannah Arendt, Marcus Aurelius, the Bhagavad Gita, H. H. Dalai Lama, the Dhammapada, Søren Kierkegaard, Martin Luther King Jr, Jean-Paul Sartre, Shantideva, Peter Singer, Leo Tolstoy, Max Weber, and Slavoj Zizek. [ more ]

REL 103The Way of Power: A History of Occult Knowledge and Practices

Last offered Spring 2013

Since antiquity, certain individuals and groups have claimed privileged access to hidden sources of knowledge, which they maintained could only be revealed to the initiated or enlightened. What is more, it was also often asserted that this knowledge conveyed various powers' from summoning good and evil spirits, transforming base metals into gold, predicting the future, achieving bodily immortality, directly witnessing the face of God or even becoming a God. How does examining these claims alter our understanding of established religions? This course will trace the historical development of these practices and beliefs-known to scholars as "esotericism"--from antiquity to the present. It will cover such topics as magic, alchemy, kabbalah, Gnosticism, hermeticism, Theosophy, tantrism, occultism, vodou, and spiritualism. Emphasizing close the reading of the primary sources, we will explore the boundaries between religion, magic and science. We will discuss esotericism as the site for the European appropriation of the "Orient," the construction of discipline of religious studies, and even the origins of modern science. [ more ]

REL 104Religious Conflict and Cooperation

Last offered Spring 2019

Violent conflicts throughout the world are animated by religious rhetoric, driven by religious actors, and sanctioned by religious authorities. At the same time, religious and "interfaith" organizations are often prominent participants in peace advocacy and conflict resolution. What are the varieties of religious involvement in war and peace? What can we learn about "religion" from the conflicts and cooperative initiatives that are labeled "religious"? Does the modern nation-state increase the likelihood of religious conflict? Will 21st century globalization support more or less conflict and/or cooperation? We will investigate these and other questions through contemporary case studies. In some cases we will focus on conflicts over territory: the Temple Mount/Noble Sanctuary in Jerusalem, the Babri Mosque/Birthplace of Rama in Ayodhya, India, the Black Hills in South Dakota. But we will also study the rhetoric of Usama Bin Laden and the role of spirit possession in the formation of the Lord's Resistance Army in Uganda. Finally, we will consider efforts to end such conflicts peacefully and delegitimize militant groups. In each case, we will see how competition for control over what counts as "Judaism," "Hinduism," "religion," "religious," and so forth is central to these conflicts and to the goals of those who seek to resolve them. Along with primary and secondary sources related to each case study, we will also read theoretical works by authors that may include Mark Juergensmeyer, Samuel Huntington, Scott Appleby, Bruce Lincoln, Saba Mahmood, Olivier Roy, Ananda Abeysekara, Talal Asad, Tomoko Masuzawa, Elizabeth Shakman Hurd, and others. [ more ]

REL 105(F)Introduction to European Art Before 1700

A team-taught introduction to the art and architecture of Europe from the ancient Mediterranean to Baroque Italy. This course celebrates the glory of works of art as physical objects, to be viewed and contemplated, to be sure, but also often to be worshiped, worn, touched (even licked), held, exhibited, bought and sold, passed through or around, and lived in. To help students begin to appreciate how these works of art might have been understood by those who originally made and used them, the course sets its objects of study within a number of revealing historical contexts, from the social and the political to the philosophical and the art historical. To give students time with works of art, our discussion-centered conferences use the wealth of art resources in Williamstown: the Clark Art Institute, the buildings and sculpture of the Williams College Campus, and the Williams College Museum of Art. [ more ]

REL 106Is God Dead? Secularization in the Modern World

Last offered Spring 2015

In 1966, Time magazine published an edition titled "Is God Dead?", alluding to Friedrich Nietzsche's famous proclamation that "God is dead." The Time edition examined the growing number of people in the United States who proclaimed disbelief in organized religion or in God. Today, one in five people in the United States identify as "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. This trend is one important component of what has come to be known as "secularization." At the same time, however, the idea that religion is increasingly disappearing or becoming irrelevant has been significantly challenged by the rise of the "religious right" in the United States, as well as Islamism, Hindu nationalism, and many other religious revival movements across the globe. This course will take a theoretical and global comparative perspective to understand the nature of secularization in the modern world. Has secularization taken place or not? What does it mean to say we live in a secular society? Is it the case that "Western" society is secular whereas the rest of the world is not? The course will answer such questions by beginning with broad historical narratives and theoretical accounts that propose various interpretations of secularization as a historical process (focusing primarily on Peter Berger, Steve Bruce, Jose Casanova, and Charles Taylor). The remainder of the course will then explore a variety of case studies from the Americas, the Middle East, India, and East Asia to nuance and complicate those theories and narratives. We will explore how the very idea of secularization presupposes a constructed notion of "religion" and will think about the implications of that secular-religion binary. [ more ]

REL 108Technologies of Religious Experience

Last offered Fall 2019

In 1962, ten Harvard Divinity School students received a capsule of white powder before Good Friday services. The powder was psilocybin, a psychedelic. One of them soon ran out of chapel to announce that the Messiah had arrived. Seven others reported profound mystical experiences, which they reported even years later as exerting continued influence on their life and work. Is psilocybin a technology for producing religious experience? Should religions find and employ technologies that engender religious feeling? Are such experiences any less true or authentic than ones that aren't technologically mediated? More humbly, how is a religious service experienced differently when it's viewed online or through a TV? How can an amulet, icon, or statue be used as a technology of religion? Drawing from a broad range of sources, this course will introduce students to the critical study of religion through its consideration of religious experience as both central to religious life and as (almost always) technologically mediated. The course thus aims to expose students to a wide variety of religions and technologies of religion, while simultaneously offering a them a chance to explore Technology Studies as one critical lens for studying religion and religious experience. [ more ]

REL 109Apocalypse

Last offered NA

An end of days. A utopia to come. A great cosmic reversal of fortune. A revelation of truth that leads to radical transformation. Each of these themes and many more fall under the genre of imagination that we associate with the apocalypse. In order to understand the persistence and prevalence of apocalyptic imaginations, we will move back and forth through time. On the one hand, we will read the Book of Revelation in relationship to a selection of ancient Zoroastrian, Jewish, Greek, Christian, and Muslim texts identified with apocalyptic traditions. On the other hand, we will read these texts in relationship to and alongside select literature and movements of apocalypse in the U.S.A. We will pay particular attention to how apocalyptic imaginations reflect upon and interact with social structures of class, colonization, ethnicity, gender, race, and sexuality. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

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REL 110Living Religion: The Study of Religion in Everyday Life

Last offered Fall 2018

When studying religions, people generally turn to studying scriptures, the life and teachings of the religion's founder, and the fundamental doctrines of the religion. What this approach does not allow us to understand, however, is the way that such religious traditions actually manifest themselves in the world. This course introduces students to an alternative approach to studying religion, by exploring the way these religions are lived and experienced by individuals and communities in a variety of contexts. We will see how religion intersects with people's lived experiences of gender, race, class, sexuality, and broader socio-cultural and political contexts. We will explore this approach to religion through an engagement with ethnography (the qualitative research method in the social-sciences generally described as "participant-observation"). Students will not only learn about the theory and practice of this methodology, but will also conduct their own ethnographic research project over the course of the semester. This will involve: designing a feasible project and research question, selecting local research sites and subjects, taking field-notes and conducting interviews, and finally analyzing data and writing an ethnographic essay. [ more ]

REL 126Religion, Politics, and Society: A Global Perspective

Last offered NA

In spite of predictions that religion would wither away with in the face of modernization, even casual observation indicates that it remains a powerful force in contemporary political life. Our goal is to obtain an enhanced understanding and appreciation of the salience of religion in public life. The course will be divided into three parts. The first part focuses on different theoretical approaches to make sense of the relation between religion, politics, and society, discussing especially the concept of the 'secular.' The second part discusses religion in the US society. Here, we will discuss if the American society can be called secular, the role of religion in American political culture, the relation of religion to the state, the relevance of religious interests and their mobilization, religious minorities in the United States and many other aspects of religion in the US society. The third part will take a global perspective on the relation between religion and politics. We will discuss cases of Buddhism, Christianity (Catholicism and Protestantism), Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam (Sunni and Shi'a) and Judaism. Although the study of religion and politics raises a host of deep philosophical questions, the principal aim of the course is to understand how religion affects politics (and vice versa), rather than to explore the moral questions raised by the interaction of these two forces. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

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REL 133(S)Buddhist Literature

This course introduces students to the diverse literary culture of Buddhist Asia. Through close readings of particular influential Buddhist texts, we will analyze not only what the texts say and mean, but also learn about the "social life" of these texts--i.e., what is the socio-historical context of these texts, who are the intended audience, what is the relationship of these texts with their particular communities, how do these communities engage with their texts, including how texts have been translated, taught, worshipped and ritualized. We will also explore the materiality of these texts, which is as diverse as the languages in which these texts are written. Alongside an exploration of materiality requires that we reflect on what counts as "text". Moreover, by sampling different genres of Buddhist texts (e.g., philosophical, historical, narrative, grammatical, cosmological, astrological, magical), we will discuss what makes them Buddhist and what makes them literary. The Lotus Sutra, the Heart Sutra, the Dhammapada, and Vessantara Jataka are just some of the texts we will study in this course. No prior knowledge about Buddhism is required. [ more ]

REL 134 TLeaving the World Behind: The Literature of Reclusion

Last offered Spring 2020

Living in a time of political and social turmoil, Confucius told his followers: "When the realm has the Way, show yourself; when it lacks the way, hide." Reclusion here is a moral choice, justified by the ethical decline of the state. But it could also be a mortal necessity in a period in which government service was a distinctly hazardous pursuit. In other contexts becoming a hermit could instead be figured as aesthetic stance meant to preserve one's artistic integrity against the dominant claims of society. This course looks at the literature of reclusion-living a life of seclusion from society-in a range of different cultures and periods, from ancient China to contemporary America. With sources that include poems, essays, novels, and films, we will investigate a set of issues surrounding radical seclusion. What different forms does reclusion take? Can one be a hermit without being completely separated from society? What is the relationship between hermits and the state-to what extent does one depend on the other? What are the philosophical and moral implications of eremitism? Is separating oneself from human society an inherently immoral act? What is the relationship between reclusion and technology in the contemporary world? What is the nature of solitude and can it be experienced in a group (for example, in contemporary "intentional communities")? While most of our work will focus on textual analysis, there will be an experiential component to the course as well. Each student will design and implement their own experiment in (short-term) eremitism. [ more ]

REL 149(S)The Sacred in South Asia

The jinn--Islamic spirits born of fire--are sought out for their healing and other powers not only by Muslims in Delhi, but by Hindus, Christians and Sikhs, as well. In parts of Bengal statues of the Hindu goddess Durga are traditionally sculpted by Muslim artisans. Buddhist pilgrimage sites in Sri Lanka contain tombs of Muslim Sufi saints and shrines of Hindu deities. South Asia--where a fifth of humanity lives--provides some of the most striking examples of pluralism and religiously composite culture in our contemporary world. Yet at the same time, strident religious majoritarianism has been a defining feature of the politics of India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka for decades, and haunts Nepal and Bangladesh as well. Are these two modes of religious being--pluralistic and composite on the one hand, singular and majoritarian on the other--reflective of two different conceptions of selfhood? What if we turn from questions of community and 'identity' to questions of unseen power and the sacred? This course is an exploration of lived religion in South Asia. It is simultaneously a study of popular Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam and an introduction to the anthropology of religion. Centered on in-depth studies of popular sites of 'syncretic' ritual practice (shared across religious difference) as well as studies of mass mobilizations that seek to align the religious community with the nation, we approach from multiple angles what the sacred might mean in modernity. [ more ]

REL 168(F)Making God Real

Is God real? Are Spirits? Divine messengers? What would it mean to say "yes" to any of these questions if we don't "believe" in supernatural beings at all? This course will explore how God(s), spirits, ancestors, and other super-human beings have been seen, heard, and felt by humans. Instead of rehearsing now tired debates between believers and skeptics, this class will combine cognitive sciences approaches to the study of religion with new perspectives on the nature of ontology--the nature of being--to examine how God and other super-human beings exist in and through their effects upon humans. From this perspective, we'll see how, even if God(s) and other supernatural beings don't exist in the heavens, they nevertheless act in this world through they ways that humans experience them. The puzzle for us will be, how do God(s), spirits, and/or divine messengers act? How do we feel, see, or hear beings that might not be there? What kind of reality do God(s) and spirits have in such scenarios? What is the nature of their being? [ more ]

REL 171Music and Spirituality: Cross-Cultural Perspectives

Last offered Spring 2018

How does the sacred sound? Across cultures and across millennia, music has served to enable, inspire, and express the spiritual life experiences of communities and individuals. Why is this so? In what contexts and through what means can making and hearing music reflect and produce spiritual experience? This team-taught course will take a comparative approach to exploring music's spiritual power, considering such areas as the function of music in ritual practices from various cultures and times, the use of music to tell sacred stories, music and dance in spiritual practice, and the role of music created in the face of death and its aftermath. Working from both musicological and ethnomusicological perspectives, we will explore the possibilities of sensory ethnography for better understanding the role of perception and the body in spiritual experiences with music. Our comparisons will draw from Western and world Christian traditions from medieval to modern times, and on conversations with musicians immersed in the music of other faith traditions (including Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim). We will explore connections between music and spirituality through a wide variety of repertoires, including plainchant and Renaissance sacred choral music; the music and dance of traditional West African religions like vodun and orisa; music from the Western classical tradition by such composers as Bach, Beethoven, and Messiaen; American hymnody and spirituals; gospel music in the U.S. and Africa; and selected artists from the world of jazz and popular music, such as John Coltrane and Leonard Cohen. [ more ]

REL 200(S)What is Religion? Theories and Methods in the Study of Religion

As recently as the 1960s, the most influential theorists of modernity were predicting that religion would eventually vanish, while theologians lamented what they called the "Death of God." But one has only to glance at today's headlines to see that accounts of religion's demise were premature. Indeed a basic knowledge of religion is indispensable to understanding the current global moment as well as a range of fields from political science to English literature and history. To explore the meaning of religion, this course will introduce the debates around which the discipline of religious studies has been constituted. It will familiarize students with the discipline's most significant theorists (both foundational and contemporary) and trace their multidisciplinary--philosophical, sociological, anthropological, and psychological--modes of inquiry. At stake are questions such as: How does one go about studying religion? Is "religion" a cultural universal? What is religion's relationship to the "European Enlightenment"? to God? to science? to society? to secularism? to colonialism? to ethics? to politics? to violence? to sex? to freedom? Has religion changed fundamentally in modernity? And if so, what is its future? [ more ]

REL 201The Hebrew Bible

Last offered Fall 2018

The Hebrew Bible is perhaps the single most influential work in the history of Western philosophy, literature, and art. But the overwhelming presence of the text in nearly every aspect of modern culture often obscures the sheer brilliance of its narrative technique as well as the complex interplay between law, history, prophecy, and poetry. This course offers a comprehensive introduction to the literary, historical, and theological aspects of the Hebrew Bible with an eye towards developing a sophisticated understanding of the text in its ancient context. Through the close reading of substantial portions of the Hebrew Scripture in translation and the application of various modern critical approaches to culture and literature, students will explore fundamental questions about the social, ritual, and philosophical history of ancient Israel, as well as the fundamental power of storytelling that has resonated across two millennia. [ more ]

REL 202Moses: Stranger in a Strange Land

Last offered Spring 2019

As chieftain, priest, prophet, and lawgiver all in one, Moses occupies the central place in the history of Israelite and Jewish leaders. However, he is a somewhat unlikely candidate for such an important role. He is God's chosen leader among the enslaved Israelites, but he is raised as an Egyptian prince. He is a spokesman for his people, but he is slow of speech. He is the lawgiver and first judge of his nation, yet he is quick-tempered and impatient. The story of the most revered figure in the Jewish tradition, who nevertheless remains an outsider to the very end, has fascinated commentators and inspired countless artistic and literary interpretations. This course will engage in a close study of the figure of Moses by examining the biblical narrative of his life and career from Exodus through Deuteronomy with an eye towards understanding the complex and often contradictory portrait of this self-described "stranger in a strange land." We will also examine some of the ancient legendary and folkloric accounts about Moses, as well as philosophical and allegorical treatments in Hellenistic Jewish, early Christian, and Muslim biographies. We will then proceed to investigate key modern reconfigurations and critiques of Moses in several genres, which may include renaissance visual depictions, literary works by Sigmund Freud, George Eliot, Thomas Mann, and Zora Neale Hurston, and even musical and cinematic renditions. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 203Judaism: Before The Law

Last offered Fall 2017

This course introduces the academic study of Judaism through a humanistic exploration of "the Law" as a concept in Jewish thought and practice. Coverage will include the Law of Moses in the Hebrew Bible, the rabbinic distinction between "Oral Law" and "Written Law," medieval philosophical justifications for the Law, modern interpretations of the Law as Moral Law, Hasidic challenges to the centrality of the Law, and twentieth-century Jewish fiction that is haunted by a felt absence of the Law. Topics may also include the nature of rabbinic authority, methods of Jewish legal interpretation and innovation, and Jewish law as it pertains specifically to women, gentiles, idolaters, food consumption, and the Land of Israel. Course materials will include classical sources such as the Talmud and Midrash, modern philosophical texts by Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss and Joseph Soloveitchik, Kafka's The Trial with his parable "Before The Law," Woody Allen's film Crimes and Misdemeanors, and ethnographic accounts of contemporary Jewish observance. All readings will be in translation. [ more ]

REL 204Jesus and Judaism

Last offered Fall 2019

Was Jesus a Christian? Was he Jewish? And if Christianity's ostensible founder was Jewish, what does that mean for his Christianness? This course will explore Christian, Jewish, and secular depictions of Jesus' Jewishness to see what they reveal about the nature and history of the relationship between Christianity and Judaism. Broad in its historical scope, the course will include examinations of ancient Jewish messianic expectations, New Testament depictions of Jesus' Jewishness, covert references to Jesus in the Talmud, medieval debates between Jews and Christians, and modern scholarly "quests" for the historical Jesus. Was Jesus Jewish? How so and for whom? [ more ]

REL 205Ancient Wisdom Literature

Last offered Spring 2018

The Biblical books of Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job are often grouped together under the Hebrew category of hokhmah, 'wisdom.' Although these books are very different in content, they can all be interpreted as meditations on ethical and practical philosophy. In this way, they represent the Hebrew Bible's canonical embrace of a widespread Near Eastern literary phenomenon. From the instructional literature of Egypt and Mesopotamia to Greek didactic poetry and fables, ancient Mediterranean cultures offer a wide range of texts that engage the issues of personal behavior, leadership, and justice. Starting with the central wisdom books of the Hebrew Bible and moving through relevant material from the Apocrypha, New Testament, and the Egyptian and Babylonian traditions, this course will examine the literature of wisdom throughout the ancient world with an eye toward understanding its various social, political, and philosophical contexts. We will then consider the Greek wisdom tradition in such texts as Hesiod's Works and Days, Aesop's fables, and fragments from the pre-Socratic philosophers. Finally, we will explore the influence of these ancient sources on later expressions of wisdom in medieval European literature, as well as more recent examples such as Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanack. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 206(S)The Book of Job and Joban Literature

The Book of Job has often been described as the most philosophical book of the Hebrew Bible. The story of one man's struggle to understand the cause of his suffering and his relationship to God represents the finest flowering of the Near Eastern wisdom literature tradition. Through its exploration of fundamental issues concerning human suffering, fate and divinity, and the nature of philosophical self-examination, Job has served as a touchstone for the entire history of existential literature. At the same time, the sheer poetic force of the story has inspired some of the greatest artistic and literary meditations in the Western tradition. This course will engage in a close reading of the Book of Job in its full cultural, religious, and historical context with special attention to its literary, philosophical, and psychological dimensions. We will then proceed to investigate key modern works in several genres that involve Joban motifs, themes, and text both explicitly and implicitly. These texts will include Franz Kafka's The Trial, Archibald MacLeish's J.B., Robert Frost's "Masque of Reason," Carl Jung's Answer to Job, and William Blake's Illustrations to the Book of Job. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 207(F)From Adam to Noah: Literary Imagination and the Primeval History in Genesis

How long did Adam and Eve live in the Garden of Eden? What was the mark of Cain? Why did Enoch not die? Who was Noah's wife? How did Giants survive the Flood? These are only a few of the fascinating questions that ancient readers and interpreters of the Book of Genesis asked and attempted to answer. The first ten chapters of Genesis present a tantalizingly brief narrative account of the earliest history of humankind. The text moves swiftly from the Creation to the Flood and its immediate aftermath, but this masterful economy of style leaves many details unexplained. This course will explore the rich and varied literary traditions associated with the primeval history in the Genesis. Through a close reading of ancient noncanonical sources such as the Book of Enoch, Jubilees, and the Life of Adam and Eve, as well as Jewish traditions represented in Josephus, Philo, and Rabbinic literature and other accounts presented in early Christian and Gnostic texts, we will investigate the ways in which the elliptical style of Genesis generated a massive body of ancient folklore, creative exegesis, and explicit literary re-imagining of the early history of humankind. We will then turn to some continuations of these variant traditions in medieval literature, with particular attention to the material on the figures of Cain and Noah. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 208Genesis: The Family Saga

Last offered Spring 2020

The Book of Genesis has rightly been described as the masterpiece of Hebrew biblical narrative. In particular, the continuous tale that begins with Abraham and Sarah and extends four generations to the children of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel is one of the most extraordinary examples of literary artistry in any time or tradition. As one family wrestles with the promise of becoming a chosen people, the narrative explores themes of marriage, parenthood, sibling rivalry, land, violence, wandering, and, above all, the complex relationship between humanity and God. This course will examine those themes through a close reading of Genesis in translation, from Abraham and Sarah's first appearance on the scene to the death of Jacob. We will consider the text from multiple perspectives with an eye toward understanding the literary, philosophical, and psychological dimensions that continue to amaze and perplex readers to this day. [ more ]

REL 209(S)Jewish America

Who and what counts as "Jewish" in America? Does stand-up comedy have a distinctly Jewish pedigree? What about neoconservatism? How is it possible to answer such questions without falling into what David Hollinger has called the "booster-bigot trap"? How is it possible, that is, to avoid answers that uncritically celebrate "Jewish contributions" or perniciously suggest "Jewish influence"? This course will explore the various meanings of Jewishness in American culture as expressed by artists, rabbis, activists, intellectuals, boosters, bigots and others. We will seek to avoid the booster-bigot trap by focusing vigilantly on what is at stake wherever Jewishness is invoked, defined or ascribed. We will draw methodological support from scholars like Hollinger, Jonathan Freedman, Laura Levitt, Yuri Slezkine, Shaul Magid, Andrea Most and others. Particular attention will be given to the appearance of Jewish themes and involvement in popular culture and political action, as well as to Jewish American communal institutions, the everyday lives of Jewish Americans, and Jewish variations on American religion. Coursework will involve some historical, sociological and ethnographic readings, but will focus primarily on close analysis of films, literary fiction, stand-up comedy, political magazines, theological texts, and television shows. We may, for instance, watch films like The Jazz Singer (1927 and 1980), Exodus and Annie Hall; read John Updike's Bech: A Book, Philip Roth's Operation Shylock or Cynthia Ozick's The Puttermesser Papers; listen to the comedy of Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce and Sarah Silverman; read from Henry Ford's Dearborn Independent, the Menorah Journal or Commentary; study works by Rabbis Stephen Wise, Abraham Joshua Heschel and Meir Kahane; and watch episodes of Bridget Loves Bernie, Northern Exposure and Curb Your Enthusiasm. We will also study arguments about the role and meaning of Jewishness in American secularization, "therapeutic culture," the civil rights movement, the sexual revolution, and feminism. [ more ]

REL 210 TDistant Encounters: East Meets West in the Art of the European Middle Ages

Last offered Spring 2020

In this tutorial, students will investigate the rich artistic consequences -- in architecture, manuscript illumination, mosaic, sculpture, panel painting, fresco, metalwork, and other minor arts -- of European contact with the Eastern Mediterranean between approximately 300 and 1450 CE. From the beginnings of Christianity, pilgrims from Europe made the long journey to sacred sites in the Holy Land (extending across parts of present-day Egypt, Israel, Syria, and Turkey). When these sites became less accessible with the spread of Islam in the seventh century, Europeans sought to recreate the sites at home. Later, from 1095 onward, Christian Europeans attempted to reclaim and hold the Holy Land from non-Christians by force, through an ill-fated series of five major and several lesser "crusades." Over the centuries, before, during, and after the Crusades, exposure to the peoples, ideas, and cultures of the Eastern Mediterranean also came through trade and through the travel and settlement of non-Europeans in Europe itself, particularly in Spain, Sicily, and Venice. Together, through open discussion, we will explore artistic production within each of these different cross-cultural contexts of East-West encounter. In the process, we will reflect on how art could function as a conduit for the exchange of ideas in the Middle Ages, and how it could be used both to negotiate and to intensify cultural difference. [ more ]

REL 211Christians versus Pagans: Ancient Egypt

Last offered NA

This course explores the religious terrain of ancient Egypt in the Greek and Roman periods. Focused mostly on the rise of Christianity, this course asks big questions about what changes and what stays the same when major religious movements emerge in a place. What parts of Christianity were new to Egypt and were premised upon a rejection and displacement of Egyptian religious practices and beliefs? What parts of Egyptian religious life, rather than being replaced or transformed by Christianity, were adopted into Christianity? And what parts of Egyptian religious practice resisted Christianity? And how and where did it resist? [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

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REL 212The Development of Christianity: 30-600 C.E.

Last offered Fall 2011

This class will introduce you to the history, writings, practices, and structures of early Christians between 30-600 CE. Who were "Christians" and how did they understand and define themselves in this time period? What historical and cultural factors influenced the ways in which Christians were perceived, could imagine themselves, and lived? While this class addresses the basic flow of events and major figures in early Christian history, it will also require you to develop a critical framework for the study of history in general. In addition, you will gain significant experience in the critical analysis of primary source materials. Special attention will be paid to the incredible diversity of early Christian thought and practice. [ more ]

REL 213Patrons, Rituals, and Living Images in Japanese Buddhism

Last offered NA

This course introduces students to Japanese Buddhist art and architecture. We begin with the introduction of continental monks, Buddhist images and texts, and ritual paraphernalia to Japan in the mid-sixth century. We focus on the ways different communities---he imperial court, immigrant artists, monks, women, and commoners---employed and venerated Buddhist images for political legitimacy, personal salvation, and worldly benefit. We consult inscriptions, court diaries, and Buddhist sutras translated into English to consider how believers instilled liveliness and power in Buddhist images. This course also examines how Japanese Buddhist imagery became aestheticized in the early twentieth century and appropriated later in modern and contemporary visual culture. Some of the topics to be discussed include the reception of continental styles of Buddhist bronze sculpture, the relationship between mandalas and rituals, the role of women in developing Buddhist embroideries, and the Western reappraisal of Zen arts. Students will develop familiarity with the concepts and ideas underlying the production of Buddhist images and will gain foundational skills for analyzing the visual, material, and iconographic qualities of Japanese Buddhist art. For the final project, students will design a digital exhibition focused around one of the topics of the course. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

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REL 214Religion and the State

Last offered Fall 2018

The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." What does "religion" mean in this formulation? Should "religion" be singled-out for exclusion from government? Are "religious" reasons ever legitimate reasons for laws, policies or popular political action? Should "religious" organizations be exempt from otherwise generally applicable laws? Is "religion" good or necessary for democratic societies? In this course we will respond to these and related questions through an investigation of "religion" as a concept in political theory. Particular attention will be given to the modern liberal tradition and its critics. Coverage will range from modern classics to innovative contemporary arguments. Classics may include John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration, selections from Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, James Madison's Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, Immanuel Kant's Religion Within the Boundaries of Mere Reason, John Stewart Mill's Three Essays On Religion, and John Dewey's A Common Faith. More recent arguments may come from John Rawls, Alasdair MacIntyre, Nicholas Wolterstorff, Martha Nussbaum, Jeffrey Stout, Winnifred Sullivan, Brian Leiter and Andrew Koppelman. [ more ]

REL 215The New Testament: From Word to Book

Last offered Spring 2020

In this course, students will be introduced to the New Testament through an exploration of how the New Testament became¿and continues to be produced as--a book. We will start by examining the letters of Paul--its earliest texts--in terms of the habits and traditions of ancient letter-writing. We will similarly place the other texts of the New Testament in the context of Greek, Roman, and Jewish literary traditions and conventions. As the semester moves forward, we will examine how the New Testament itself became a material object--a book--and how its changing material status shaped its meaning and functioning. We will see the New Testament transform from a library of separate scrolls and/or codices (a library which was occasionally bound together into a single codex), to a luxury object in the Middle Ages, to a cheap printed object in the wake of the printing revolution of the 19th century, to its modern life as both a highly marketed object and a searchable digital ¿thing¿ in online spaces and mobile apps. [ more ]

REL 216Greek Art and the Gods

Last offered Spring 2020

In the Iliad, when the god Apollo is visualized, it is as a man, angry in his heart, coming down from the peaks of Olympos, bow and quiver on his shoulders, the arrows clanging as the god moves, "like the coming of night," to bring dogs, horses, and men to their deaths. By the end of the Classical period, one statue of the archer god depicted him as a boy teasing a lizard. In this course, we will examine the development of the images the Greek gods and goddesses, from their superhuman engagement in the heroic world of epic, to their sometimes sublime artistic presence, complex religious function, and transformation into metaphors in aesthetic and philosophical thought. The course will cover the basic stylistic, iconographical, narrative, and ritual aspects of the gods and goddesses in ancient Greek culture. The course will address in detail influential artistic monuments, literary forms, and social phenomena, including the sculptures of Olympia and the Parthenon; divine corporeality in poetry; the theology of mortal-immortal relations; the cultural functions of visual representations of gods, and the continued interest in the gods long after the end of antiquity. Readings assignments will include selections from Homer, Hesiod, Sappho, Aischylos, Euripides, Plato, Walter Burkert, Jean-Pierre Vernant, Nikolaus Himmelmann, Erika Simon, and Friedrich Nietzsche. [ more ]

REL 217Religion and American Politics

Last offered Fall 2019

This course examines the intersection of religion and American politics, from the colonial era to the present. It focuses especially on electoral politics and social movements, exploring the role of religion in conflicts over racial equality, capitalism, gender and sexuality, and church-state relations. Students will tackle questions with both historical and present-day relevance, such as: Was America founded as a Christian nation? Has religion been a source of revolutionary change, or a mere 'opiate of the masses?' How have religious ethics shaped the politics of race, gender, and class? How has growing religious diversity affected civic unity? What role should religion play in American political life? The course will cover such topics as the religious views of the 'Founders;' debates over slavery; spiritualism & women's rights; state treatment of religious minorities; the Scopes Trial and scientific modernity; the Social Gospel and modern capitalism; the New Left and the Moral Majority; and late 20th-century religious battles over war, civil rights, feminism, and democracy itself. [ more ]

REL 218Foundations of China

Last offered Fall 2019

This course examines the foundational period of Chinese civilization, from the earliest evidence of human activity in the geographical region we now call China, through the end of the Han dynasty in the early third-century CE. This is the period that saw the creation and spread of the Chinese script (a writing system that would be the dominant one in East Asia for thousands of years), the teachings of Confucius (whose ideas continue to play a role in the lives of billions of people today), the construction of the Great Wall (which is not, as it turns out, visible from space), and the creation of the imperial bureaucratic system (that was, in essence, the progenitor of the modern bureaucratic state). We will proceed chronologically but focus on a set of thematic topics, including language and writing, religion and philosophy, art and architecture, politics and economics, and science and technology. While this course is entitled "Foundations of China," we will take a critical perspective on narratives, both Chinese and Western, that see Chinese history as an unbroken history of a single "civilization." [ more ]

REL 219Judaism Under Ancient Greek and Roman Imperialisms

Last offered Spring 2020

How did ancient Greek and Roman empires shape the beginnings of Judaism? In this course, we will examine how Greek and Roman imperial systems of identity, ethnicity, law, religion, and knowledge affected Judaism as a religious and cultural system. We will pay particular attention to the ways that Jews/Judaeans responded to these imperial pressures, especially as those responses articulated "hybrid" versions of Judaism that were informed both by resistance to imperial centers as well as the sheer hegemony of those cultural systems. The course thus uses (and introduces students to) postcolonial theory to study the history of Judaism under Greek and Roman empires. Readings for this course will include a wide array of ancient Jewish works, such as the books of Maccabees, Flavius Josephus, Philo of Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Mishnah. The course will also include select readings from early Christian texts and postcolonial theory. [ more ]

REL 221Technologies of Religion in the Early Christian World

Last offered Fall 2017

What is the relationship between religion and technology? How do various technologies affect the production and distribution of religious knowledge? Facilitate communication and interaction with the divine? Transform the religious self? In this course, we will look specifically at the uses and effects of technology on religion in the early Christian world. While focused most directly on the influence of technology on the development of early Christianity, the course will also explore the place of technology in coterminous movements: in "pagan" sacrifice, Neoplatonic divination, and Stoic practices of the self. By examining technologies of text production, sacrifice, memory, and the self, the course will shed light on early Christianity and its competing religious and philosophical movements, as well as on the nature of technology's relationship to religion. [ more ]

REL 222The Jewish Art of Interpretation

Last offered Fall 2019

Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it. This famous rabbinic dictum offers an enigmatic yet comprehensive account of the principles that have defined the Jewish practice of interpretation for over two millennia. The imperative to keep a text, word, image, or concept in constant motion, in order to generate as many meanings and cross-meanings as possible, challenges us to transform the act of interpretation itself into a virtuosic craft or art that can engage the human imagination as diversely and powerfully as the creation of the works being interpreted. At the same time, emphasis on the dynamism between text and interpreter should dispel the notion that only expansive works have expansive meanings. If interpretation itself is an art, then even the shortest text can contain "everything" within it when it participates in that art. This course will engage students in a radical experiment in the art of interpretation. Through a deep encounter with a selection of miniature texts, ranging from ancient rabbinic proverbs and medieval fables to the modern parables and fragments of Franz Kafka, as well as folklore and jokelore from every period in Jewish history up to the present, we will develop an interpretive practice that combines analytic, critical, and creative principles in both written and oral contexts. The goal throughout is to explore interactively how the making of meaning is an integral part of the human experience. [ more ]

REL 223Revolt and Revelation in 20th-Century Americas

Last offered Fall 2017

Writing in 1971, Dominican priest and Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez asked "Is the Church fulfilling a purely religious role when by its silence or friendly relationships it lends legitimacy to dictatorial and oppressive government?" Such a question encapsulates the sometimes agonistic and other times deeply intertwined relationships between religious institutions, religious thought, and movements for political transformation in the 20th century Americas. This course examines those forms of "God-talk" broadly termed "liberation theologies" that responded to and challenged social relationships of class, colonization, race, culture, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, and ecology. These theologies were borne out of and in turn deeply shaped struggles against oppressive regimes and structures in the Americas, and as such we will focus on some specific theological writings--such as those of Gutierrez--and their relationship to distinct social movements and struggles over land, economy, and political power, especially in Brazil, El Salvador, Perú, and the United States of America between 1960-2000. [ more ]

REL 224U.S. Latinx Religions

Last offered Spring 2018

In this course, we will engage aspects of Latinx religious experiences, practices, and expressions in the United States of America. Given the plurality of Latinx communities and religious lives in the U.S.A., we can only consider select contexts that help us understand the challenges of studying and defining the "religious" and "hybridity" in Latinx contexts. We will survey certain selected religious traditions and practices --such as popular Catholic devotions to Guadalupe, crypto-Judaism, curanderismo, Latinx Muslims, and Santería--by focusing on particular moments of religious expression as elucidated in specific historiographies, ethnographies, art, literature, and film. [ more ]

REL 226Spiritual But Not Religious

Last offered Fall 2017

Today, more than one in five people in the United States identify as "none" when asked about their religious affiliation. Yet that does not mean that religious sentiment or spirituality is on the decline. On the contrary, talk of "spirituality" is more pervasive than ever in popular discourse. Increasingly Americans claim that they are "spiritual but not religious" or that they prefer "individual religion" over "organized religion." This course seeks to understand and investigate this phenomenon. What is the lived experience of being "spiritual but not religious"? What counts as spirituality? Is there a meaningful distinction between spirituality and religion? What does this distinction assume about the nature of organized religion? What is the history that led us to this ideology of individualized spirituality? And what are the social and political implications of this trend? We will explore these questions and study this phenomenon through an engagement with ethnography (the qualitative research method generally described as "participant-observation"). Over the course of the semester, students will be expected to conduct an ethnographic research project within local communities in Williams College and Williamstown. Alongside our central readings on spirituality, we will also be studying some background in the theory and practice of this methodology. Throughout the semester, students will work together on developing the practical skills necessary to conduct an ethnographic project, and will be gradually executing their own individual projects. This will include: designing a feasible project and research question, selecting research sites and interlocutors, taking field-notes and conducting interviews, and finally analyzing data and writing an ethnographic essay. [ more ]

REL 227Utopias and Americas

Last offered Spring 2012

The very word for "utopia," a Latin word coined by Thomas More in 1516, owes much of its initial imagination to European voyages of "discovery" and conquest. In this course, we examine the ways that the "New World," and particularly the United States of America, has been a utopian project from the early days of colonization. How have particular historical experiences in the Americas been shaped by utopian machinations, and how has the New World transformed the dreaming of utopia? In this course, we consider the theory of utopia in conversation with select historical writings from and scholarship about early Spanish and English colonization, early nation-building in the U.S., Haiti, and Mexico, the Shakers, the Oneida Community, the Canudos Massacre in Brazil, Father Divine's International Peace Mission Movement, Chicanx Aztlán, Chalatenango in El Salvador, and Oyotunji Village in South Carolina. We also examine literary and artistic selections from Edward Bellamy, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Ayn Rand, Sun Ra, and Black Panther (2018). Through these different utopian moments and selections, we trace themes of time, space, environment, gender, family, class, race, colonialism, and rebellion and examine the ways in which different utopias have responded to and reproduced structural injustices. Because utopias have been so common throughout the Americas, students are encouraged to bring in comparisons with utopias not listed on the syllabus. [ more ]

REL 228(F, S)Zen and the Art of American Literature

Just one hundred years ago, few Americans knew the first thing about Buddhism. But in 2020, who hasn't heard of (or even tried) mindfulness or meditation? Buddhist ideas and practices now seem ubiquitous, available even in the form of smartphone apps like Headspace and Ten Percent Happier. In this class, we'll explore how Buddhism came to be the profoundly important cultural force in American life that it is today. We'll read a variety of Buddhist-influenced literary texts, from the Beat poetry of the 1950s to contemporary novels like Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being. And we'll range far beyond the world of literature into other cultural domains in which Buddhism has had a deep impact, like environmentalism, psychotherapy, and Western attitudes towards death and dying. We'll also give special attention to the role that Buddhism is playing in the struggle for racial justice (from bell hooks to Black Lives Matter). And we'll engage in an experiential investigation of the benefits of incorporating contemplative practices like mindfulness into higher education: students will learn a variety of meditation techniques, and we'll spend time each week practicing and reflecting upon those practices. Students will be expected to maintain a daily meditation practice outside of class (10-15 minutes a day), with the help of one of those newfangled meditation apps no less! No prior experience with meditation is necessary. Just an open mind. (For detailed information about the format of this hybrid course, please visit: www.tinyurl.com/Engl239) [ more ]

REL 229Reel Jesus: Reading the Christian Bible and Film in the U.S.A.

Last offered Spring 2017

In this course we examine some of the ways that Christian biblical narratives have appeared in late twentieth-century and early twenty-first century Hollywood movies, looking in particular at films such as The Matrix (1999),The Passion of the Christ(2004),Jesus Christ Superstar(1973),The Shawshank Redemption(1994),The Omen (1976),Children of Men (2006), and The Book of Eli (2010). What are the overt and subtle ways that these films seek to interpret and employ biblical texts? Why do they draw upon the texts they do and read them as they read them? What can cinematic interpretations of biblical texts reveal to us about how these texts are used in broader U.S. culture, especially to crystallize and reflect certain political, economic, ethnic, racial, sexual, and social parameters of U.S. cultures? How does an awareness of this scriptural dimension in a work of "popular culture" affect our interpretation of both the film and the scriptural text's meanings? How do varying interpretations of biblical texts help us to understand cinematic meaning? By assuming that we can read both biblical texts and films in multiple and contradictory ways, this class can use film as the occasion for interpreting, analyzing, and debating the meanings, cultural functions, and affective responses generated by biblical narratives in film. Finally, this course asks us to analyze the implications of ways in which we read texts and films. For this interdisciplinary course we will read selected biblical and extra-canonical texts, including selections from canonical and non-canonical gospels, the letters of Paul, and the book of Revelation, but our focus will be on the way that movies (and the people who make them and watch them) make meaning out of these biblical texts. [ more ]

REL 230Who was Muhammad?

Last offered Fall 2016

Considered the Messenger of God, Muhammad is a central character of the Islamic tradition and has been the object of love and devotion for centuries. Recent outbursts sparked by controversial cartoons depicting Muhammad have made clear that he remains a revered and controversial figure even today. This course takes a critical historical perspective to the biographies of Muhammad, the founder of Islam. Rather than focus on the "facts" of his life, we will think about the ways in which historical context, political interests, and shifting conceptions of religion have influenced the way in which Muhammad has been imagined and remembered. We will also consider the ways in which Muslim and non-Muslims biographies of Muhammad are intertwined and interdependent, often developing in tandem with one another. By exploring Muslim and non-Muslim, pre-modern and modern accounts of Muhammad's life, we will think about the many ways in which Muhammad's life has been told and re-told over the centuries. In this course we will consider some of the following depictions of Muhammad: Muhammad as the object of ritual devotion; Muhammad as statesman and military leader; Muhammad's polygynous marriages and his young wife, Aisha; Muhammad as social reformer and revolutionary. Course readings will include pre-modern biographies (in translation) as well as contemporary Muslim and non-Muslim biographies. [ more ]

REL 231The Origins of Islam: God, Empire and Apocalypse

Last offered Spring 2014

Both Muslim and non-Muslim historians usually see the rise of Islam in the seventh century C.E. as a total break with the past. This course will challenge that assumption by placing the rise of Islam in the context of the history of late antiquity (c. 250-700 C.E.). The first portion of the course will examine the impact of Judeo-Christian monotheism in the ancient world, the rise of confessional empires, articulation of new ideas about holiness and its relation to sexuality and the transformations undergone by Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism and Manichaeism. We shall examine the conversation of these traditions with classical paganism and philosophy, the internal struggle within traditions to define rules of interpretation, the impact of ascetic, iconoclastic and apocalyptic ideas and, finally, polemics among the traditions. We will then examine the career of Muhammad (PBUH) in the context of Arabia, the spread of the Islamic empire into Christian and Iranian worlds, the impact of apocalyptic expectations, the fixation of religious decision making within the tradition, the process of conversion, the encounter with the Late Antique heritage and religious diversity within the commonwealth of Islam. The course will end with the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258. [ more ]

REL 232(S)Buddhist Economics

Or, "From 'Shark Tank' to 'Monk Cave': Business and Socially Engaged Buddhism". Television shows like Shark Tank, featuring a panel of potential investors who consider propositions from aspiring entrepreneurs, evinces that popular culture values only the making of profit. In such a capitalistic world, who are the "winners" and "losers"? What impact does a business/product have beyond its intended consumer benefits? What is the Buddhist response to business and commerce and its overall effects on individuals, society, and ecology? This course will challenge students to research, analyze, and devise resolutions for real world issues, by having students employ Buddhist solutions informed by concepts such as compassion, interconnectedness, and Socially Engaged Buddhism. Students will scrutinize the related concept of "structural violence". We will look at examples from Bhutan's "Gross Domestic Happiness", Thailand's "Sufficiency Economy", China's state-led religious charities under the name of "Humanistic Buddhism", as well as the ordination of trees. This course hopes to prepare students to be critical, rather than merely passive, world citizens, especially in the realm of business, and to be more conscious and aware of their everyday life choices and its impact on every aspect of society. [ more ]

REL 233Islam and the West: A Clash of Civilizations?

Last offered Spring 2018

"This idea that all religions share the same values is bulls**t and we need to call it bulls**t," the popular political commentator and critic Bill Maher has said on multiple occasions. "If you are in this religion [Islam], you probably do have values that are at odds [with American values]. This is what liberals don't want to recognize." Maher has acquired a reputation for making strong statements like this about the need for Americans (and liberals in particular) to stand up for their secular liberal values, which are in conflict with and superior to the values of Islam. Maher's comments are only one recent manifestation of a long line of pundits making such claims. This is best exemplified by Samuel Huntington's "Clash of Civilizations" thesis, which famously predicted that there would inevitably be a violent clash between the Islamic and Western Civilizations. This course investigates such ideas about the inherent conflict between Islam and the West. How should we understand the nature of Islamic and Western civilizations and the relation between them? What is the history of this relationship? What has given rise to these standard representations of Islam and Muslims? What are the political stakes and consequences of these representations? How should we understand the phenomenon of "Islamophobia"? We will explore these questions through an in-depth and critical investigation into the history of Euro-American nationalism and colonialism, the concepts of "civilizations" and "religions", the history of modern Islam, and the nature of Orientalism and secularism. [ more ]

REL 234What is Islam?

Last offered Fall 2018

This course introduces students to Islam as a varied and contested historical tradition. The course will trace the historical development of Islam, focusing on religious and intellectual thought, political developments, and the practices and lived lives of Muslims. We will begin with situating the rise of Islam within the context of late antiquity, followed by an examination of the life of Muhammad, and the rise of Muslim empires. These developments will form the framework through which we investigate the theological, philosophical, legal, mystical, and literary writings of Muslims from the classical to the early modern periods of Islamic history. The main aim of the course is to develop a framework for understanding the historical developments through which Muslims have constructed ideas about normativity, authority, and orthodoxy in debates around Islam. Sources will include pre-modern historical and religious texts (in translation). [ more ]

REL 235The Garden in the Ancient World

Last offered Spring 2019

Drawing on the literature, art, and archaeology of ancient gardens and on real gardens of the present day, this course examines the very nature and experience of the garden and the act of gardening. Using a multi-disciplinary approach, we will explore the garden as a paradise; as a locus for philosophical discussion and religious encounter; as a site of labor, conquest, and resistance; and as a place for solace, inspiration, and desire. This course will be grounded in crucial readings from antiquity, such as the Hebrew Bible, Homer, Sappho, Cicero, Lucretius, Vergil, Horace, Columella, and Augustine, and in the perspectives of more modern writers, from Jane Austen and Tom Stoppard to contemporary cultural historian George McKay. Ultimately, our goal is to analyze conceptions and expressions of beauty, power, and love-in the garden. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 236(S)Reading the Qur'an

In the nearly 1500 years of Islamic history, the Qur'an has been a central source of spiritual insight, ethical and legal guidance, sacred stories, and theological principles. Considered the divine word of God, the Qur'an is central to devotional life. This course will explore the Qur'an as a text that is always in a state of production. We will focus significantly on close readings of the text of the Qur'an, in addition to pre-modern and modern Qur'anic exegesis. The course will begin with a historical account of the revelation and collection of the Qur'an, placing the form and content of the text in the context of 7th century Arab society and the life of the Prophet. We will then study Qur'anic commentaries to discuss how Muslims have drawn theological, legal, philosophical, and mystical meaning from the Qur'an. We will pose some of the following questions: What do the different exegetical methods tell us about the intertextual nature of the Qur'an? How have these shifting notions affected the meaning made from Qur'anic verses and passages? What role do interpretive communities play in determining what the Qur'an says? Lastly, through an exploration of the art of Qur'an recitation, calligraphy, and Qur'an manuscripts, we will explore the ways in which the Qur'an is also an object of devotion in Muslim life. [ more ]

REL 237(S)Islam in the United States: From Black Muslims to the War on Terror

Malcolm X is likely the most prominent and influential Muslim figure in the history of the United States. His story represents two fundamental themes in the history of Islam in America: conflict between Muslims over what is "authentic" or "orthodox" Islam; and the ways that American history, politics, and culture determine the contours of "American Islam". This course will explore these two themes through an array of topics in the history of American Islam. In so doing, we will examine the complex relation between religion, politics, and culture in the United States. Beginning with the story of Malcolm X, the Nation of Islam, and other African-American Muslim movements, we will try to understand: What made Islam so appealing to millions of African-Americans throughout the 20th century? And were these genuinely "religious" and "Islamic" movements, or just racial/political "black nationalist" movements in the guise of religion? What counts as legitimately "Islamic", and who gets to decide? We will then move into the latter half of the 20th century and the post-9/11 debates over authentic Islam. What happened to American Muslim communities and organizations after the waves of post-1965 immigration from Muslim countries? How have debates about Muslim identity shifted over time, from being configured in terms of black separatism, to transnational/diasporic identity, to the attempts at articulating an indigenous "American-Muslim" identity? How have national narratives around 9/11 and the "War on Terror" impacted these debates over identity and "true Islam"? And how have these debates intersected with gender, racial, and ethnic politics? Throughout the course, we will be studying historical and anthropological material, autobiographies, novels, documentaries, films, and social media. The course fosters critical thinking about diversity by challenging assumptions of who Muslims are, what being American means, and what Islam is. It also focuses on the complex interaction of different dimensions of diversity, from religion to race, ethnicity, nationality, culture, gender, language, and age. [ more ]

REL 238(S)Faith and Rationality in Islam: Skepticism and the Quest for Certainty

Religious faith is generally perceived as being diametrically opposed to reason and rationality. Islam in particular is often assumed to be even more dogmatic in its demand for blind unquestioning faith. This course will explore the lively debates among Muslim theologians regarding the complex relationship between faith, rationality, and skepticism. Is faith compatible with reason and rationality? Can the foundations of Islamic belief be proven to be true? Are there limits to what can be known rationally? Are people justified in holding religious beliefs? Does faith require absolute certainty? What room is there for doubt and skepticism in Islam? We will explore these questions through an array of primary and secondary readings in Islamic theology, philosophy, and mysticism from the medieval period. [ more ]

REL 239The Modern Middle East

Last offered Fall 2019

This survey course addresses the main economic, religious, political and cultural trends in the modern Middle East. Topics to be covered include the cultural diversity of the Middle East, relations with Great Powers, the impact of imperialism, the challenge of modernity, the creation of nation states and nationalist ideologies, the discovery of oil, radical religious groups, and war and peace. Throughout the course these significant changes will be evaluated in light of their impact on the lives of a variety of individuals in the region and especially how they have grappled differently with increasing Western political and economic domination. [ more ]

REL 240The Challenge of ISIS

Last offered Spring 2017

What is ISIS and what does it want? Using historical and anthropological sources and perspectives, the course considers the origins, ideology and organization of the Islamic State. Beginning with an examination of early radical movements, including the Muslim Brotherhood, the Afghan mujahidin and Taliban, and al-Qaeda, the course will go on to investigate how ISIS derives important aspects of its ideology and organization from these earlier movements and how it deviates from them. We will look at unique aspects of the movement, such as its use of social media, its extensive destruction of ancient historical sites, its staging of spectacles of violence, and its recruitment of Muslims from Europe and North America. We will also examine the ideological constitution of the movement, including its attitude toward and treatment of non-Muslims, its conceptualization of itself as a modern incarnation of the original Islamic caliphate, the ways in which it justifies its use of violence, and its apocalyptic vision of the present-day as End Time. Finally, we will evaluate current responses to ISIS, in the West and among Muslims in the Middle East and elsewhere, in terms of their effectiveness and strategic coherence. [ more ]

REL 241History of Sexuality

Last offered Spring 2018

Is sexuality an immutable aspect of who we are or is it socially constructed? How have people understood sex and sexuality throughout history? Why does religion have any say in the sexual lives of individuals and society? What are sexual transgressions and why are they punished? Is sex a commodity that can be exchanged for money? Is sex political? This course will explore these questions through a historical approach, focusing in particular on the shifting understanding of sex and sexuality across historical time and different geographical regions. In investigating the category of sexuality, this course will push us to consider three key questions: 1) Is sexuality a useful category for historical analysis, 2) how have our assumptions regarding sexuality and sexual ethics taken shape and changed over time and 3) how do social, cultural, political, and economic conditions affect changing meanings of sexuality. Historical studies will be read in conjunction with different theoretical frameworks about sexuality. Reading historical accounts of sexuality alongside theoretical pieces will allow us to consider how historians construct an argument and the influence of theoretical frameworks in shaping scholarship. Some of the theorists we will read in the course include: Michel Foucault, David Halperin, Afsaneh Najmabadi, Valerie Traub, and Carla Freccero. [ more ]

REL 242(S)Women, Gender, and Sexuality in Islam

The figure of the Muslim woman is an object of intense scrutiny in Western society. Claims that Muslim women are oppressed and the incompatibility of Islam and feminism abound. This course will consider women and gender roles in the Islamic tradition and how Muslim women have interpreted and negotiated these discourses. We will explore questions of masculinity, femininity, and sexuality across various historical periods as well as through contemporary Muslim feminist scholarship and literature (including film and novels). We will begin with insights into the politics of representing Muslim women, exploring how Muslim women are depicted in popular culture and media and ask the crucial question: do Muslim women need saving? We will then explore: how Muslim women have claimed religious authority through scriptural interpretation; how they have negotiated their position in Islamic law both historically and in contemporary Muslim societies; and the lives of pious women in Sufism--the mystical tradition of Islam. We will conclude with Muslim feminist scholarship and recent works on Islamic masculinities. Throughout the course, emphasis will be placed on the diversity of interpretations in Islam around women, gender, and sexuality and on Muslim women's own articulations about their religious identity and experiences. Some of the topics covered in this course include: marriage and divorce, slavery, modesty and veiling, and homosexuality. [ more ]

REL 243Islamic Law: Past and Present

Last offered Fall 2018

From fear of the Shari'a to its implementation in so called "Islamic countries," Islamic law is perhaps best associated with draconian punishments and the oppression of women. Islamic law is ever present in our public discourse today and yet little is known about it. This course is designed to give students a foundation in the substantive teachings of Islamic law. Islamic law stretches back over 1400 years and is grounded in the Quran, the life example of the Prophet Muhammad, and juridical discourse. Teetering between legal and ethical discourse, the Shari'a moves between what we normally consider law as well as ethics and etiquette. The course will explore four key aspects of the law: its historical development, its ethical and legal content, the law in practice, and the transformation of Islamic law through colonialism and into the contemporary. Specific areas we will cover include: ritual piety, family and personal status law, criminal law, and dietary rules. [ more ]

REL 244Mind and Persons in Indian Thought

Last offered Spring 2019

In this course, we follow the Indian philosophical conversation concerning the self and the nature of consciousness, particularly as they are found in its various Yogic traditions. We start with some of the Hindu views about the self and the mind and consider their ethical implications. We then consider a range of Buddhist critiques of these views, focusing more particularly on the Madhyamaka, which radicalizes the critique of the self into a global anti-realist and skeptical stance. We also examine the Yogacara school, which offers a process view of reality focusing on the analysis of experience. We conclude by considering some of the later Hindu holistic views of the self as responses to the Buddhist critique. In this way we come to realize that far from being the irrational foil of "the West," Indian tradition is a rich resource for thinking through some of the central questions that have challenged philosophers in both traditions. [ more ]

REL 245Tibetan Civilization

Last offered Spring 2014

Often depicted as Shangrila, a mythical and ideal country, Tibet has had the dubious privilege of being a focus of Western fantasies. One cannot but wonder about the motives and sources of this mythology. Although this course examines these representations, its main focus is an immersion in the cultural and historical aspects of Tibetan civilization, which give students the tools with which to understand Tibetan culture from the inside. As such this course is part of the Exploring Diversity Initiative. We first consider the early history of Tibet, the introduction of Buddhism, the relations between Buddhism and the indigenous religion, and some of the stages in the development of Tibetan Buddhism. We also examine the historical developments that led to the development of the institutions (such as the Dalai-Lama) unique to Tibet and some of the aspects of the culture that these institutions helped to create (such as gender roles, family structure and social stratification). Finally, we consider the more recent tragic events and examine the profound transformations that they have brought. Throughout the course, we consider the central role of the complex interaction between Buddhism and politics in Tibetan history, both in the pre-modern period and in more recent times, when the Tibetan people have faced the challenge of how to use their institutions and culture to resist oppression. In this way, we get a footing in the Tibetan world, and the indispensable assessment of Western representations of Tibet becomes not just an exercise in self-reflection but also a gate to a better understanding of a remarkable but tragically threatened civilization. [ more ]

REL 246 TIndia's Identities: Nation,Community, & Individual

Last offered Spring 2020

This tutorial considers India's legacy as a booming Asian democracy that is built upon deep and enduring divisions. Why is India's growing population so often described in terms of multiple identities or fragmenting oppositions---including religion, gender, caste, and class? What are the historic roots and recollections of key moments of structural violence in modern Indian history that produce ongoing social conflict as well as social fluidity? We pay particular attention to key historic moments such as Partition, and key communal riots in Gujarat, Hyderabad, and Delhi as well as regions of India such as Jammu & Kashmir in order to understand the struggle for individual subjectivity and identity within a landscape of stark social hierarchies. We will cover climate emergencies, resource scarcities, and ongoing struggles for power and status across very different parts of India. Our readings include ethnographic, sociological, historical analyses as well as fiction, oral history, and popular media sources that attempt to portray India¿s diverse and fragmented society. [ more ]

REL 247Anti-Muslim Racism: A Global Perspective

Last offered NA

The racialization of Islam and Muslims has been constitutive to how they have been imagined in Europe and elsewhere. This course looks at how difference works and has worked, how identities and power relationships have been grounded in lived experience, and how one might both critically and productively approach questions of difference, power, and equity. It goes back to the founding moments of an imagined white (at the beginning Christian) Europe and how the racialization of Muslim and Jewish bodies was central to this project, and how anti-Muslim racism continues to be relevant in our world today. The course will not only show how Muslims were constructed as subjects in history, politics and society from the very beginning of the making of Europe and the Americas to the end of the Cold War to the post-9/11 era. Rather, it also looks at how Muslims live through Islamophobia. It looks at processes of racialization of Muslims within the Muslim community and between Muslim communities, while also considering which agencies Muslims take to determine their own future. The course draws from anthropology, gender studies, history, political science, religious studies, postcolonial studies, decolonial studies, and sociology. [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

REL 248Body Politics in South Asia: Gender, Sex, Religion, and Nation

Last offered Spring 2015

This course examines the relationship between body, gender, sex, and society in South Asia, using three countries and religions---India, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh, and Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam---as its foil. The course uses the body as a lens by which to unpack South Asian discourses that link body and sexuality with nation, community, and population. In particular, it explores a South Asian sociology that links individual and social bodies in ways that occasion solidarity as well as social suffering, violence as well as communal cohesion. How do bodies come to signify the purity or prosperity of the nation or community and with what social or discursive effects? We begin by unpacking foundational theories of the body as proposed by Mauss, Foucault, Douglas, and Bourdieu in order to better understand how local discourses of the body help produce gender and other social hierarchies in South Asia. By considering how the human body can serve as a map for society and vice versa, we examine both classical discourses and modern institutional practices of the body including the temple, the monastery, the mosque, and the mendicant, as well as bodily practices such as yoga, celibacy, sex work, and new reproductive technologies. We also analyze how the body has served as a symbol of nation, community, and social health. Throughout, we are interested in the cross-cutting effects of gender and sex in perpetuating structural hierarchies and social suffering around the body in South Asia. [ more ]

REL 249Anti-Semitism

Last offered Fall 2018

This course will investigate intellectual traditions, political movements, and cultural objects that portray Jews, Jewishness, or Judaism as essentially pernicious. We will analyze materials from a variety of times and places, including the ancient world, the medieval period, and the present day. We will assess the impact of anti-Semitism on the lives of Jews and non-Jews. But we will also read theoretical approaches to the study of anti-Semitism that raise key questions for our investigation. Where does the term "anti-Semitism" come from and how exactly should it be defined? Is anti-Semitism a continuous phenomenon that connects every claim of Jewish perniciousness, wherever it is alleged, for over two thousand years of human history? Or should every context be treated as fundamentally distinct, so that the claim of Jewish perniciousness is presumed to have a distinct meaning, origin, and purpose in each case? What motivates charges of Jewish perniciousness? What are the particular threats typically alleged to be posed by Jews, Jewishness, and Judaism? How do constructions of Jewish perniciousness fit with constructions of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, class, sexuality, and nationality in different times and places? [ more ]

REL 250Scholars, Saints and Immortals: Virtue Ethics in East Asia

Last offered Fall 2017

In East Asian cultures, as in the United States, popular conceptions of morality typically take their shape, not from explicit rules, but from moral paragons--stylized figures that are said to embody a distinctive cluster of virtues. For example, American Christians invoke not only Jesus, but also a pantheon of "secular saints" as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. and General Patton, George Washington and Cesar Chavez. This course will explore the cultural functions of moral paragons and philosophies of virtue in East Asia by introducing students to examples from Chinese and Japanese history, ranging from Confucian articulations of the ideal scholar-bureaucrat to Buddhist conceptions of the Bodhisattva to Taoist immortals. It will also address the history of ethical thought in East Asia, focusing particular attention on conceptions of "Virtue Ethics." This approach has come to be seen by some contemporary analytic philosophers as a way out of the impasse produced by ethical relativism and the loss of theological rationales for moral action. Readings will include Euro-American philosophers such as Nietzsche and MacIntyre as well as primary texts in translation by Chuang-tzu, Confucius, Shantideva and others. [ more ]

REL 251Zen Buddhism: History and Historiography

Last offered Fall 2012

Because mystifying references to Zen are strewn throughout American popular culture-from episodes of the Simpsons to names of perfumes and snack foods-most Americans have an image of Zen Buddhism that is disconnected from anything actually practiced in East Asia. This course offers a corrective to this image by familiarizing students with both the history of Zen and the historiographical roots of these popular perceptions. This course will examine the origins of Zen (Ch'an) in China, trace its transmission to Japan, and cover its development in both cultural contexts. It will conclude with an examination of Zen's unique role in American popular culture. The course will enrich the conventional image of Zen by addressing its involvement with power and governance, gods and demons, mummies and sacred sites, sex and violence, nationalism and scholarship. Texts will include selections from primary works in translation (The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, The Gateless Barrier, The Lancet of Seated Meditation) as well as selections from secondary literature including Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, Victoria, Zen at War, and Faure, The Rhetoric of Immediacy. [ more ]

REL 253Spiritual Crossroads: Religious Life in Southeast Asia

Last offered Spring 2019

No region of the world presents a richer tapestry of religious beliefs, practices, and institutions than Southeast Asia. Buddhism, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam are all to be found and all of them interpenetrate and contend with each other and with a deep undergirding of animism, shamanism, and mystical folk belief systems. This course will survey these religious traditions through time and space, looking in particular at the growing tension between religion and the state as fundamentalism and religious militancy have spread into the region in recent times. All of Southeast Asia will be covered, but particular attention will be devoted to Indonesia, where religious blending and the growth of new fundamentalism are both especially marked. [ more ]

REL 254(S)The Theory and Practice of Meditation in the Modern World

This course invites students to examine theoretically and experientially meditation. Throughout the course, we examine meditations belonging to various Buddhist traditions through our own practice. We study some of the manuals where these meditations are taught and connect these practices to some of the more important ideas of the tradition. In studying and practicing meditation, we follow a gradual approach, starting from the most basic practices to more advanced ones. We also connect the practices and ideas we consider with modern scientific approaches, examining practices such as mindfulness therapy and the practice of positive emotions from a psychological perspective. In the process, we re-contextualize Buddhist ideas by connecting them with modern approaches, particularly those inspired by biology, psychology and ecology. Throughout the course, students will keep a daily practice of meditation and record their experiences in a journal so as to be able to come to an informed understanding combining a theoretical grasp of the issues raised by meditation and their own personal appreciation. [ more ]

REL 255Buddhism: Ideas and Practices

Last offered Spring 2019

This course introduces students to Buddhism by examining its ideas and practices as they have taken place in actual social contexts rather than as disembodied textual objects. After examining the main ideas and narratives of the tradition, we turn our attention to Thailand where we examine how these ideas and narratives have shaped a whole range of practices, from meditation to shamanistic rituals. We then consider the transformations that Buddhism is undergoing in contemporary society, examining the rise of meditation movement, the changing role of monks and laity, the resurgence of the nun order, the rise of Buddhist social activism and the development of new Buddhist social philosophies. We ask questions such as: How can Buddhism adapt to a modern global consumerist society? What are the transformations involved in this process and the role that Buddhism can play in such a global society? Should Buddhists take advantage of the opportunities of this new global culture or should they adopt a critical stance toward its consumerist values? [ more ]

REL 256Buddhism, Sex, & Gender: #MeToo Then and Now

Last offered Fall 2018

This course considers the feminist voices that have been part and parcel of Buddhist practices, texts, and institutions for most of its 2500-year history. We will conduct a historical genealogy of Buddhist voices that illustrate the fluid and disruptive role of sex, gender, caste, and class in relation to individual behavior and social relations. How did the Buddha's inner revolution produce a set of practices that both reject and reinforce existing binaries and social hierarchies of sex and gender, and with what effects? We will trace a feminist voice that decries harassment, assault, and systemic sexism within Buddhist communities from the first female disciples (Theri) of the Buddha to the current #MeToo era of embattled toxic masculinity. Along the way, we explore a literary canon that contains misogyny and 'she devils' alongside a rich tapestry of female divinities, transgender fluidity, and female liberation. We pursue and intersectional analysis of Buddhist traditions and texts by considering the multiple forms of social hierarchy--gender, sexuality, race, and class--that Buddhism has attempted to transcend. We begin by considering three women in the Buddha's life-his mother (Maya), his stepmother/aunt (Gotami), and his wife (Yashodhara)--as well as the tales of the first enlightened Buddhist women whose topics include prostitution, patriarchy, sexism, and pathetic husbands, as well as their own decaying bodies and beauty. Our next theme is the myriad ways that gender is both produced and deconstructed in Buddhist discourses on enlightenment and the human body. Our final theme considers a range of monastic memoirs, including a Buddhist black nun who left Harvard to take ordination in Thailand, and a Dutchman who studied Zen Japan. We close by examining the current debates in the U.S. and Asia that seek to combat systemic racism, sexism, and casteism in Buddhist traditions. [ more ]

REL 257Tibetan Buddhism: Embodying Wisdom and Compassion

Last offered Spring 2018

We begin by considering the basic ideas and practices of Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the ways in which the ideals of wisdom and compassion have shaped Tibetan culture. We then proceed to examine particular aspects of the tradition such as the role of the teacher or lama and their various manifestations, from the exotic figure of the tantric guru to that of the Dalai Lama, a charismatic world teacher engaged in both religious and political affairs. We also examine a wide range of lay and monastic practices, from the life of large monasteries and their unique culture to the practices of nuns and lay people. Throughout this course, we consider not just the variety of exoteric practice forms but also the esoteric tantric tradition that pervades Tibetan life. We examine the various meditative practices that revolve around this profound and often misunderstood tradition. In doing so, we do not consider tantra as just a set of strange practices sometimes revolving around sex and violence. Rather we examine how it manifests a philosophy of embodiment that has profound implications for thinking about who we are as human beings. [ more ]

REL 258(F)American Conservatism

This course traces the history of modern conservatism in the United States, from the early 20th century to the present. Students will examine the key ideas, leaders, and social movements that fueled and defined the rise of the modern right, broadly construed. In the process, they will go beyond electoral politics, exploring the relationship between conservativism and American life more broadly - especially in the realms of race relations, gender and sexuality, religion, and capitalism. Students will be asked to think historically, considering how the right rose from obscurity to political ascendance over the course of the 20th century. And they will be asked to engage theoretically, considering what (if anything) has defined conservatism in principle and in practice. In the process, they will examine such topics as Christian fundamentalism; anti-New Deal organizing; Cold War nationalism; the GOP's 'Southern Strategy;' law and order politics; anti-feminism and the culture wars; neoliberal economics; and neoconservative foreign policy. [ more ]

REL 259Ethics of Jewish American Fiction

Last offered Spring 2020

After the Second World War, Jewish American writers who wrote about Jewish characters and Jewish themes were increasingly celebrated as central figures in American fiction. Isaac Bashevis Singer, Bernard Malamud, Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick and Philip Roth are among those who gained prominence in this period. These writers were literary innovators and often addressed broad humanistic themes. But they also struggled with profound questions that arose in the postwar period about Jewishness, the legacy of the Holocaust, and what it means to be an American. In this course we will read the above authors and others. We will focus, in particular, on the distinctive ethical and political ideas, emotions, and aspirations that animate their work. The course will begin with a study of theoretical approaches that will provide the basis for our ethical criticism: we will read, for instance, Lionel Trilling, Wayne Booth, Martha Nussbaum, and Noël Carroll. Then we will delve into the fiction, following a trail that begins in the postwar period and continues in fictions by Erica Jong, Rebecca Goldstein, Michael Chabon, Gary Shteyngart, and others. Can we find a distinctive Jewish American ethics in Jewish American fiction? [ more ]

REL 260History of the Book

Last offered Fall 2014

From ancient clay tablets, bamboo strips, and papyrus rolls to modern hardbacks, paperbacks, and e-readers, no object has so broadly and deeply represented the capacity for humans to create, preserve, and transmit knowledge, information, and ideas as the book. Books have been worshiped and condemned, circulated and censored, collected and destroyed. From works of art to ephemeral trash, they have been public and private, sacred and profane, magical and commonplace. Likewise, notions of the book have influenced every subsequent form of communication and transmission, whether we are browsing film and song "libraries" or "scrolling" down "pages" on the web. This course will explore aspects of the material, social, cultural, and intellectual history of the book, from the invention of the earliest writing systems through the modern development of digital media. Our inquiry will span the globe and the millennia, but we will pay special attention to the ancient and medieval Chinese, Greek, and Latin traditions and their enduring influence in the modern world. Topics will include orality and literacy, manuscript production, the invention and spread of printing, typography, reading culture, notions of authorship, libraries and collections, censorship, and the digital book. Through a variety of readings, hands-on exercises, and interactions with our abundant library resources, we will investigate how the changing form and function of the book interact across its long and diverse history. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 261Rastafari: Dread, Politics, Agency

Last offered Fall 2019

The emergence of Rastafari in the twentieth century marked a distinct phase in the theory and practice of political agency. From its heretical roots in Jamaica, Garveyism, Ethiopianism, and Pan-Africanism, Rastafari has evolved from a Caribbean theological movement to an international political actor. This course investigates the political theory of Rastafari in order to develop intellectual resources for theorizing the concept of agency in contemporary Africana thought and political theory. We will analyze texts and audio-visual works on the political economy of late colonial Jamaica, core Rastafari thinking, political theology, the role of reggae music, the notion of agency, and the influence of Rastafari on global politics. [ more ]

REL 262 TTime and Blackness

Last offered Fall 2018

The concept of time is one of the most examined, yet least theorized, concepts in Africana Studies. While the field is saturated with historical studies and literary analyses that take up issues of cultural memory, both of which involve thinking about time, time itself is rarely the subject of sustained inquiry. This may be due to its abstractness as an idea and the level of analysis its conceptualization demands, or because time in the African American experience cannot be understood outside of the meaning of race, which itself is far from tangible. In this tutorial, "Time and Blackness," we will explore how African American writers across a number of genres understand time. We will read select texts of fiction as well as spiritual autobiographies, historical narratives, and sociological studies to understand how writers draw from--and create--paradigms of time to organize their work. The following questions will structure our investigation: What are the constituent elements of time in African American writing? How does race shape the ways a writer conceives of the experience of time? In examining writings across genres, is there something that we can call an identifiable African-American "timescape"? [ more ]

REL 263Giving God a Backbeat: Rap Music, Religion & Spirituality

Last offered Spring 2017

On the surface, religion and rap music may seem as if they have little in common. Yet, like other Black musical traditions such as spirituals and the blues, rap is rooted in African American religious traditions. In this course, we will explore the ways in which rap music intersects with the sacred and secular worlds. Through an examination of black religious traditions, lyrics, music videos, and digital media, we will unearth what Anthony Pinn calls the "spiritual and religious sensibilities" of rap music. Grounded in culture-centered criticism, we will investigate the rhetoric of rap and religion through the theoretical ideas of Black Liberation Theology and hip-hop feminism. [ more ]

REL 264Bodies, Genders, and Sexualities in the Early Christian World

Last offered Fall 2018

What does it mean to be a woman or a man? To have body? A gender? A sexuality? In this course we will explore the ways in which bodies, genders,and sexualities were experienced and described in Mediterranean antiquity. Ancient experiences of and ideas about bodies, genders, and sexualitieswere often very different than those of the contemporary world. Nevertheless, because Greek and Roman antiquity and Christian beginnings oftenfunction as the imagined origins of "Western" (or European and American) "civilization," these ancient ideas about bodies, genders, and sexuality,maintain an out-sized presence in current debates about the "normal" body, gender practices, and the contour of sexuality. With a focus on earlyChristianity, the course seeks, on the one hand, to introduce students to the early history of Christianity through an inspection of its pluriformdiscourses on the meaning and regulation of bodies, genders, and sexuality, even as it keeps an eye toward the modern legacy of these ideas. On theother hand, the course gives students the opportunity to be introduced to key questions and theories in Women's, Gender, and Sexuality Studiesthrough the study of early Christianity and its environs [ more ]

REL 265Sacred Cinema: Black Religion and the Movies

Last offered Spring 2015

Although they represent different genres, what popular films Madea's Family Reunion (2006), First Sunday (2008), The Princess and the Frog (2009) have in common is that they each offer complex and at times contradictory images of black religious expression in North America. These films, which present varied perspectives of African American experience, implicitly and explicitly engage themes inherent to the study of religion, such as the role of faith in decision-making processes and the use of religious tradition as a means of reinforcing or contesting socio-cultural norms. This course is as much about the use of film to study black religious expression as it is about the use of paradigms of religious thought to study the intersections of gender, race, and religion in film. We will study films of different genres to facilitate discussion about the various dimensions of black religious expression. Conversely, we will use images, metaphors, and teachings found in Religious Studies to discuss what appears on screen. Through interdisciplinary, critical approaches in Film Studies and Popular Culture Studies, this course will examine how black religious expression pervades modern cinema, and will offer constructive strategies for engaging in dialogue with this phenomenon. [ more ]

REL 266Being American, Being Muslim: American Muslim Literature in the 21st century

Last offered Spring 2019

Islam and Muslims in the United States are the subject of extensive public scrutiny and media coverage in broader public discourses. It is less common, however, to hear Muslims' own voices speak about their lives, experiences, beliefs, and commitments. This course will take a literary approach to exploring American Muslims' own narratives about themselves. We will address questions such as: How have American Muslims understood their identity in the wake of 9/11? What are the pressures and demands of American national belonging and cultural citizenship that Muslims must navigate? How are race, gender, ethnic heritage, and immigration definitive of Muslim experiences and self-understandings? What are the competing claims and contestations about authentic expressions of Islam? How are Muslims approaching the tensions between communal belonging and individuality? We will be engaging such questions primarily through an analysis of popular memoirs, autobiographies, novels, and short stories, but will also explore some plays, films, poetry, and comedy. [ more ]

REL 267The Art of Friendship

Last offered Fall 2016

The idea of friendship has captivated poets, philosophers, and their audiences for over three millennia. The subtle dynamics of this fundamental relationship between humans have been a source of inspiration, consolation, and consternation for countless writers and readers. What are the different types of friendship? How does one make a friend, and what makes a good friend? How does a friend differ from an acquaintance, an ally, an accomplice, an enemy? Can the beloved also be a friend? Ancient Greek and Latin writers took up these and other questions about friendship in philosophical dialogues and treatises, epic and lyric poems, tragic and comic plays, oratory, and correspondence. This course will explore ancient theories and representations of friendship through readings from many of the most important texts and authors of antiquity, including Gilgamesh, the Hebrew Bible, Homer, Sappho, Euripides, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Virgil, Seneca, and the Epistles of Paul. We will also consider the wide-ranging responses to these meditations and depictions in later traditions from the Middle Ages to modernity, in such writers as Heloise and Abelard, Aelred of Rievaulx, Aquinas, Montaigne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Bishop, Jack Kerouac, and Susan Sontag. All readings are in translation. [ more ]

REL 268(F)Where are all the Jews?

Until four decades ago, many Maghrebi and Middle Eastern cities and villages teemed with Jewish populations. However, the creation of the Alliance Israelite Universelle's schools (1830s), the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the decolonization process in the Maghreb and the Middle East, and the Arab defeat in the Six-Day War accelerated the departure of Arab and Berber Jews from their homelands to other destinations, including France, Israel, Canada, the United States, and different Latin American countries. Arab and Berber Jews' departure from their ancestral lands left a socioeconomic and cultural void that Maghrebi and Middle Eastern cultural production has finally started to address, albeit shyly. The course will help students understand the depth of Jewish life in the Maghreb and the Middle East, and interrogate the local and global factors that led to their disappearance from both social and cultural memories for a long time. Reading fiction, autobiographies, ethnographies, historiographical works, and anthropological texts alongside documentaries films, the students will understand how literature and film have become a locus in which amnesia about Arab/Berber Jews is actively contested by recreating a bygone world. Resisting both conflict and nostalgia as the primary determinants of Jewish-Muslim relations, the course will help students think about multiple ways in which Jews and Muslims formed communities of citizens despite their differences and disagreements. [ more ]

REL 269 T(F)Mindfulness Examined: Meditation, Emotion, and Affective Neuroscience

This course offers a social analysis and condensed genealogy of mindfulness from its roots as a Buddhist meditation practice through its modern application as a tool to improve our awareness of the related processes of mind, behavior, and emotions. We consider how mindfulness relates to Buddhist discourses and practices, and to the rapid rise of fields like contemplative neuroscience, affective neuroscience, and integrative neurobiology. How and why has the research on mindfulness and other applied meditative practices exploded since 2000? How has this research helped us understand and explain the intersection of mind, emotion, behavior, and human development? We critically examine the models of the mind developed by clinical and evolutionary psychologists and researchers in fields such as affective neuroscience to better understand the applications of mindfulness in the US today. Specifically, we consider how mindfulness and other forms of meditation are being used to improve the training of health care providers and educators, while augmenting and deepening the quality of their engagement with patients, students, and others they serve. We examine and train in a variety of meditation practices including mindfulness and forest bathing, while unpacking the subjective experience of our minds and emotions first-hand. Students will be asked to engage in mindfulness practices the entire semester. [ more ]

REL 271Erotic, Grotesque, Sublime: Ghosts and Monsters in East Asian Religion and Popular Culture

Last offered Fall 2016

"Ghosts and monsters" (Chinese yaoguai, Japanese yokai, Korean yogoe) have long figured prominently in East Asian cultural history. In medieval East Asian chronicles, wrathful demons attacked the imperial palace, ghosts haunted abandoned temples, and shape-shifting foxes infiltrated the bedrooms of royal concubines. These creatures persisted into the modern era when nineteenth century tabloids reported the existence of demon-foxes, giant serpents, and vengeful spirits. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, monsters began crossing over into the realm of fiction, and Japanese, Chinese, and Korean popular novels and films continue to crawl with images of traditional dark beasts. The opening contention of this course is that ghosts and monsters signify deviancies from "the normal" as it is constructed in a given culture and time period--they often come to represent transgressions of nature, gender, sexuality, race, morality, or to subvert distinctions such as those between human and animal, man and woman, animate and inanimate, present and past, or living and dead. This course will analyze East Asian ghosts and monsters in their historical cultural context, thinking about how they come to embody particular cultural fears and desires. We will use a range of East Asian materials in translation--including folktales, medieval bestiaries, short stories, and films, alongside a heavy dose of theory including works by feminist scholars Julia Kristeva, Ilka Quindeau, Susan Sontag and various others who attempt to understand the monstrous and the uncanny. Students will undertake an extended research project on a ghost or monster of their choice and locate it in its broader cultural context. Doing so should put us in a position to explore central themes, such as the connection between the grotesque and the erotic, the cultural performance of gender, the social construction of illness, the trauma of memory, the commodification of the supernatural, and the boundaries of the human. [ more ]

REL 272(F)Art of the Noble Path: Buddhist Material Culture Across Asia

Buddhism has spread throughout Asia and beyond since its emergence in India in the 5th century BCE, providing a shared philosophical and cosmological framework for diverse cultures. Artistic expression, regional politics and cultural landscapes have been shaped by its remarkable influence. With patrons ranging from powerful monarchs and monks to merchants and tradespeople, Buddhist art has historically reflected the religion's social inclusivity. This course will survey the architecture, painting and material culture of Buddhism in Asia, tracing its influence in diverse media, from rock-cut architecture to Zen painting. A close reading of primary texts, such as architectural inscriptions in India, manuscripts from Tibet, and travelogues of Chinese pilgrims, will provide greater context for the artworks. [ more ]

REL 273Heroes, Saints and Celebrity

Last offered Fall 2018

This course examines the ways in which cultures select, ritually celebrate, institutionally harness, and ultimately devour people designated as 'extraordinary'. We will begin by considering cultural archetypes and theories of the hero and how heroism has been understood in different eras and cultural contexts. Using Weber's theory of charisma as a foundation, we will look at a number of specific case studies to evaluate the relationship between individual creativity and action and the demands of social conformity and control. Finally, we will examine how charisma is commoditized in the form of the celebrity in contemporary American culture. [ more ]

REL 274(F)Ritual, Power and Transgression

The focus of this course is on the role of ritual in harnessing political power. In the first part of the semester, we examine some of the ways in which different cultures manufacture social order and political power through categories of inclusion and exclusion, clean and dirty, proper and improper, and licit and illicit. We will be particularly attuned to the ways in which these categories are performed through and maintained by rituals and how bodies are deployed in ritual spaces as instruments of persuasion and control. We will also look in depth at a variety of ritual forms, including scapegoating and sacrifice, and how they serve as engines of political control and protest, and we will examine the uses of dead bodies and memorials as vehicles for gaining and maintaining political power and the destruction and desecration of bodies and memorials as a form of political protest and dissent. Throughout the semester, we will be relating theoretical texts and historical cases to current political struggles in this country and abroad. [ more ]

REL 275(S)Paul the Apostle: Then and Now

The Apostle Paul is the most important thinker in the history of Christianity. He wrote much of the New Testament and was one of the first to formulate and articulate the basic message of Christianity. In this course, we'll start by exploring Paul's writings in their original context, probing what his message would have meant for the inhabitants of the Roman Empire. Special attention will be paid to Paul's contribution to ancient debates about Judaism, conversion, and ethnic difference. In addition to examining the first contexts and meanings of his writings, we'll be especially interested in the legacy of Paul's writings on modern political thought in Europe and America in the 20th and 21st centuries. In this portion of the course, we'll see how Paul's influence has shaped current theories of citizenship, with or without the knowledge or consent of modern thinkers and societies. The course thus explores the original significance of Paul's thought as well as its hidden influence upon the political structures of secular modernity. [ more ]

REL 277Meditation and Modern American Life

Last offered Fall 2019

The first English translation of a Buddhist text was published in the United States in 1844. At the time, few Americans knew the first thing about what Buddhism was, but now, a little over a century and a half later, Buddhist ideas and practices (meditation, in particular) can be found everywhere. In this class, we'll explore how Buddhism came to be the profoundly important cultural force in American life that it is today, looking particularly at the increasingly mainstream role of meditation in modern American life. We'll study how traditional Buddhist meditation practices were transmitted to the West, and then track the way those practices changed over time, as they were adapted to the radically new context of American culture. And we'll study the way meditation is impacting a wide array of cultural domains, including: literature, psychology, education, environmentalism, Western attitudes towards death and dying, and the fight against racism. A key part of the course will be an introduction to the theory and practice of meditation: we'll learn a variety of meditation techniques, and we¿ll spend a significant amount of time each class practicing and reflecting upon those practices. This course is a part of a joint program between Williams' Center for Learning in Action and the Berkshire County Jail, in Pittsfield, MA. The class will be composed equally of nine Williams students and nine inmates. An important goal of the course is to encourage students from different backgrounds to think together about issues of common human concern. Classes will be held at the jail, with transportation provided by the college. *Please note the atypical class hours, Thursdays, 4:45-8:30 pm.* [ more ]

REL 278(F)Buddhist Material Culture: Objects of Practice and Merit

You've heard of the "material girl" (or boy), but what about the material Buddhist? This course encourages students to look beyond modernist ideals of Buddhism as a rational tradition of monks, monasteries and manuscripts, merely advocating mindfulness. In this course, we take Buddhist "stuff" (material culture) seriously. We explore what exactly is material culture, and what makes it Buddhist? If Buddhism is supposed to be a tradition that encourages non-attachment, then what is meant by "Buddhist material culture"? Shouldn't Buddhists be free of material things? Or, rather, who says they have to be? This course offers: (1) an introduction to the core concepts of Buddhism; (2) a brief overview of Material Religion, or the "material turn" in the study of religion; and (3) a preliminary exploration into the vast material- and spiritual worlds of Buddhist Asia, particularly China, Japan, Myanmar, Tibet, and Thailand. We begin by decolonializing Buddhism (think mandala, not only meditation; or ghosts and spirits, not just sutra). Next, we trace religious studies trends that privilege material investigations that acknowledge the agency of not only humans but also the agency of objects/things/stuff, and that emphasizes the dynamics among people, things, and spirits. We learn about these dynamics by looking closely at Buddhist stuff. Things act upon us, and we (re)act upon them. They shape identity, create meaning, and maintain relationships. We will learn that things are never just things. They help us better understand what people do in Buddhism, not just what people believe. This course includes brief experiential components on Buddhist meditation and ritual. No prior experience in meditation or Buddhism is required. This course does not assume any previous background in Buddhism, Religion, Asian Studies, or Art History. [ more ]

REL 279What is the Shari'a? Law, Power, and Ethics in Islam

Last offered Spring 2020

Discussions of the Shari'a or Islamic law in American public discourse conjure images of veiled women, girls barred from attending school, and public spectacles of flogging and stoning to death. Such a caricature of Islamic law as a medieval but draconian penal code elicits public fear and state suspicion. In the West, legislative measures are taken to curb the Shari'a's perceived threat to security, democracy, and human rights. On the other hand, Islamists seek to harness the Shari'a as an instrument of political legitimacy and authoritarian rule. Both instances reify the Shari'a in ways that erode its regional diversity, intellectual versatility, and socially embedded practices and modes of interpretation. This course offers an in-depth introduction to the Shari'a through an examination of major themes in its substantive content and historical evolution. While students will gain an integrated view of the Shari'a from its origins in 7th century Arabia to the modern era, our primary emphasis will be on the Shari'a's tumultuous relationship with liberal democracy and the secular nation-state. Students will probe the history of the Shari'a's present by pursuing a genealogical inquiry in two parts: (a) precolonial, and (b) postcolonial. Module (a) comprises Islamic legal theory, its scriptural sources, and the formation of schools of jurisprudence; Shari'a governance in the imperial age; and the institution of slavery. Module (b) covers colonial transformations and reforms; state-sponsored projects of restoration and codification; blasphemy and religious minorities; and gender and sexuality. Apart from learning substantive content through the course of our genealogical inquiry, students will also develop a theoretical foundation in anthropological approaches to the study of Islam as law (discursive tradition, symbolism, custom), power (sovereignty, discipline, biopolitics), and as ethics (subjectivity, self-cultivation, ordinary ethics). [ more ]

REL 280The Seeds of Divinity: Exploring Precolumbian Art & Civilization in a Museum Exhibit

Last offered Spring 2019

For all ancient civilizations, the gods were a powerful force, affecting all aspects of human lives and dominating ancient art. This course will explore concepts of divinity in five civilizations in Precolumbian Central America: Aztec, Maya, Zapotec, Teotihuacan, and Nayarit. The course examines how the broad concept of divinity is materialized in everyday life. We will query how the human body is used as the prism through which concepts about humanity, the human soul and the supernatural are perceived and depicted in the art of these civilizations. This is a project based course, and each student will study one or more art objects from these five civilizations, and consider how these objects could be presented in a museum exhibit. [ more ]

REL 281(S)Religion and Science

In the last few years the deniers of religion such as Dennett and Dawkins have forcefully argued that recent scientific developments show the degree to which religion is irrelevant to a modern understanding of what it means to be human. Atran and Boyer have made a similar case, arguing that recent progresses in our understanding of human cognition demonstrate that religion is a purely natural phenomenon that has little if any value for human development. Theologians such as Haught and Polkinghorne have rejected these views, arguing that a proper understanding of scientific developments such as evolution and quantum mechanics suggests religiously relevant views of the universe and our place therein. This course considers these competing perspectives while offering critical reflections on the views and categories involved in these controversies. We also examine the works of reflective naturalists such as Bellah and Herrstein, who argue that far from showing the irrelevance of religious ideas and practices, the new mind and life sciences suggest a much more nuanced view according to which religion is both grounded in the natural world and central to the development of human culture. Hence, it cannot be easily discounted as irrelevant to a scientifically informed understanding of what it means to be human. [ more ]

REL 282Religion and Capitalism

Last offered Spring 2016

Up through the 1960s it was popular to claim that the world was becoming increasingly and inevitably secular, with the development of modern capitalist social relations as a signature cause. Today the 'secularization thesis' is largely defunct. Instead one sees the vibrant return of religion to social, economic, and political prominence in most parts of the world--at the very same time we are experiencing through globalization and the information revolution the most dramatic economic advances in a century. This course investigates the historical and contemporary relationship between culture and economics, religion and capitalism, in their most encompassing forms. In investigating this theme, our cornerstone will be Max Weber's famous argument from The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Along the way we will discuss both the origins of capitalist society as well as its more recent transformations through the rise of the welfare state, consumerism, and globalization. We will also discuss changes in religion under the influence of capitalism including romanticism, Pentecostalism, moralistic therapeutic Deism, and the 'God gap' between largely theist Africa, South and West Asia, and the Americas on the one hand and largely atheist Europe and East Asia on the other. The focus of the course is on Christianity in Western countries both historically and in the present, but we will spend time discussing religion (particularly Pentecostalism) and capitalism in the contemporary Global South as well. [ more ]

REL 283(F)Religion and American Capitalism

Was Jesus a revolutionary socialist or a savvy salesman? Does capitalism bring prosperity to the virtuous or breed selfishness and sin? Shall the meek inherit the earth or should the hand of the diligent rule? Is it holier to renounce worldly wealth or crusade against poverty? These questions have long preoccupied religious believers, and their changing answers have transformed the history of American capitalism. This course invites students to study that history, from the early 19th century to the present. It will cover such topics as: utopian communes; the political economy of slavery; working-class religion and labor organizing; Christian and Jewish socialism; big business and the Prosperity Gospel; 'New Age' spirituality and the counterculture; and conservative Christianity in the age of Wal-Mart and Chick-Fil-A. [ more ]

REL 284 T(S)From the Battlefield to the Hermit's Cell: Art and Experience in Norman Europe

This tutorial provides students with the chance to investigate in-depth three of the most astonishing works of art created during the entire Middle Ages: the Bayeux Tapestry (c.1077-1082), the Cappella Palatina (c.1130s-1166), and the Psalter of Christina of Markyate (1120s-1160s). Created within a hundred years of each other all within territories controlled by the Normans--a warrior dynasty that settled in northern France in the 10th century and then expanded north into England and south into Italy in the 11th and 12th centuries--each of these works is unprecedentedly ambitious in scale, dazzling in its material properties, and survives in its original wholeness, a rarity in the medieval world. Despite these similarities, however, each work is very different from the other two and so sheds light on very different aspects of Norman experience, across Europe. The Bayeux Tapestry, likely made by female embroiderers for a baronial hall, is a giant textile (over 70 meters long) that in gruesome and fascinating detail tells the story of the Norman invasion of England by William the Conqueror in 1066. The Cappella Palatina in Palermo, in turn, commissioned by King Roger II, is a royal chapel covered in sumptuous mosaics that reveals through its decoration and ritual the dynamic interaction of Islamic, Byzantine, and Latin Christian traditions in the multicultural Norman kingdom of Sicily in the 12th century. And the Psalter of Christina of Markyate, a large prayerbook made for the use of a female recluse in southern England, contains 40 full-page paintings and 215 decorated initials, a vast and inventive program of imagery that through its creative profundity helped reshape private devotional art and culture for centuries to come. Through their variety, then, these three objects--an embroidery, a building, and a book--give students insight into the rich array of concerns and aspirations, from the political to the spiritual and from the public to the private, that gave substance and meaning to 11th- and 12th-century European life, for women as well as men. What is more, these three remarkable works of art have been the focus of much interesting scholarship in recent years, so an exploration of some of that literature provides a compelling introduction to the discipline of art history itself, past and present. [ more ]

REL 285 T(S)Haunted: Ghosts in the Study of Religion

Haunting offers a powerful way to speak about forces that affect us profoundly while remaining invisible or elusive. "What is it that holds sway over us like an unconditional prescription? The distance between us and that which commands our moves-or their opposite, our immobility-approaches us: it is a distance that closes in on you at times, it announces a proximity closer than any intimacy or familiarity you have ever known" (Avital Ronell, Dictations: On Haunted Writing [1986] xvi-xvii). The figure of the ghost has been developed by those seeking to grapple with the ongoing effects of modern slavery, colonialism, state-sponsored terrorism, the holocaust, and personal trauma and loss. Building upon the insights about memory, history, and identity that haunting has been used to address, this course will challenge you to explore the study of religion by way of its "seething absences." We shall ask how the study of religion has endeavored to address loss, trauma, and its persistent effects, what "holds sway" over various approaches to the study of religion, as well as how "religion" constitutes its own ghostly presence, haunting other domains. [ more ]

REL 287The Dynamics of Globalization: Society, Religion and the Environment

Last offered Spring 2010

This course offers a theoretical reflection on the social, cultural and environmental dynamics of globalization and their consequences for the nature and place of religion. Rather than argue for or against globalization, we first examine the nature of this new configuration and its relation to (post)modernity, asking questions such as: What are the cultural and social dynamics of globalization? What are the effects on the nature of the state and the political practices that take place in the global world? What are its environmental consequences? We then shift to examining the role of religion, arguing that its renewed relevance is a function of the socio-cultural transformations that globalization brings about, particularly the loss of community and the increasing atomization of individuals. We conclude by examining some of the perspectives created by the new religious expressions that attempt to respond to this situation, from personal spiritual quests as manifested in interest in Buddhism, ecology or mountain climbing, to various forms of fundamentalism, such as Evangelicalism, the fastest growing religious movement in the Americas, and the most radical forms of Islamicism. Reading list: Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity; Castells, The Rise of the Network Society; Bauman, Globalization; Kivisto, Multiculturalism in a Global Society; Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World; Ortner, Life and Death on Mt. Everest; Matthews, Global Cultura/ Individual Identity; Shuck, Mark of the Beast; Roy, Globalized Islam. [ more ]

REL 288Embodiment and Consciousness: A Cross-Cultural Exploration

Last offered Fall 2019

This course examines some of the central questions raised by the study of the consciousness: the place of intentionality, the role of emotions, the relation with the body, the nature of subjectivity, the scope of reflexivity, the nature of perceptual presence, etc. In confronting these difficult questions, we do not proceed purely theoretically but consider the contributions of various observation-based traditions, from Buddhist psychology and meditative practices to phenomenology to neurosciences. We begin by examining some of the central concepts of Buddhist psychology, its treatment of the mind as a selfless stream of consciousness, its examination of the variety of mental factors and its accounts of the relation between cognition and affects. We also introduce the practice of meditation as a way to observe the mind and raise questions concerning the place of its study in the mind-sciences. We pursue this reflection by examining the views of James, Husserl, Sartre and Merleau-Ponty, particularly as they concern the methods for the study of the mind and the relation between consciousness, reflexivity and the body. In this way, we develop a rich array of analytical tools and observational practices to further our understanding of the mind. But we also question the value of these tools based on first person approaches by relating them to the third person studies of the mind. In this way, we come to appreciate the importance of considering the biology on which mental processes are based and the light that this approach throws on the nature of consciousness. We conclude by considering the relation between first and third person studies of the mind, focusing on the concept of the embodied mind as a fruitful bridge between these different traditions. [ more ]

REL 289(S)The Talmud on What it Means to be Human

The Talmud, a central text in Judaism, is one of the richest and most sophisticated works of literature and thought ever produced. In this course, students will be introduced to the challenges and thrills of reading the Talmud as they consider how the Talmud asks and answers the question of what it means to be human. We will be particularly interested in exploring how the Talmud theorizes and prescribes a certain type of bodily self in its rereading of the Biblical laws of purity and impurity. In addition to learning how to read the Talmud, therefore, students will also be introduced to burgeoning interdisciplinary questions regarding the self and its making. [ more ]

REL 290 TExplorations of the Afterlife

Last offered Spring 2010

From Heaven to Hell, Valhalla to Hades, the Fields of Aaru to the Land of Yellow Springs, all cultures have generated images of other worlds that lie beyond death. By considering examples from a range of different cultures, this tutorial will guide students on an exploration of the topographies of these shadow-lands. In an effort to map the continuities and discontinuities between these visions of the hereafter, we will consider them as reflections of existing social hierarchies, examining their underlying assumptions about punishment and redemption, family, and ethics. Along the way, we will discuss culturally specific notions of death and mourning, attitudes towards the bodies of the dead, and controversies about the nature of the soul. Texts will include selections from primary works in translation, such as Virgil's Aeneid, Dante's Inferno, and The Tibetan Book of the Dead, as well as selections from secondary literature, including Teiser's The Scripture on the Ten Kings, Gauchet's The Disenchantment of the World, and Bremmer's The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife. [ more ]

REL 291Religion and the American Environmental Imagination

Last offered Spring 2018

This course examines the relationship between religious and environmental thought in modern America. Exploring a broad range of practices and beliefs, we will examine the religious (and anti-religious) roots of contemporary environmental discourse. Rather than survey the environmental teachings of organized religious groups, our focus throughout will be on ambiguous, eclectic, and fascinating traditions of "eco-spirituality" and popular "nature religion." Where do these traditions come from? What is their relationship to science, to secularism, to politics, and to the search for environmental justice? Starting with the Transcendentalist movement of the 19th century, we will trace a roughly chronological line to the present, taking long detours into several modern religious trends and movements, including the revitalization and contestation of Native American religions, Wicca and neo-pagan ecofeminism, and evangelical Creation Care. Focusing on the writings of activists and radicals from a variety of religious backgrounds, our overarching question throughout the semester is one of the most critical we face in modern environmental thought: what is the relationship between spirituality and the just, sustainable society? [ more ]

REL 293Religion, Play, and Fantasy

Last offered Spring 2018

Religion is sometimes described as separate from everyday life, a source of transcendence, offering practices that allow you to lose yourself and be absorbed into another level of consciousness, or a realm of supernatural forces. These could also be descriptions of "play." In this course we will explore the play element in culture and how it relates to what we usually describe as "religious." We will investigate video games, fantasy novels and films, Live Action Role-Playing, war reenactment, pop culture fandom, BDSM, festivals like Mardi Gras, and places that are "set apart" for play like Las Vegas. How do the ways that we play involve religious ideas like sin, redemption, supernatural forces of good and evil, canonization, countercultural community, tradition, submission, and purgation? Is play at the core of what we usually deem religious? What, for instance, is the play element in ritual, myth, and the devotional interpretation of texts? How important is play? Should we accept the conventional assumption that religion is more important than play? Is playing, perhaps, what we most want to do? Is playing what we would do if all of our practical needs were already met and we didn't have to do anything at all? In addition to exploring particular kinds of play, we will read theorists of play from a variety of disciplines, including: Johan Huizinga, Roger Caillois, Brian Sutton-Smith, Victor Turner, Donald Winnicott, Bernard Suits, Sam Gill, Robert Bellah, and Wendy Doniger. In a final paper, each student will have an opportunity to investigate in depth and interpret a particular form or instance of play that they choose. [ more ]

REL 296The History of the Holocaust

Last offered Fall 2019

In twenty-first century United States, the murder of approximately six million European Jews by Nazi Germany remains a central event in our political, moral, and cultural universe. Nevertheless, the Holocaust still confounds historians¿ efforts to understand both the motivations of the perpetrators and the suffering of the victims. In this course, we will study the origins and unfolding of Nazi Germany¿s genocidal policies, taking into consideration the perspectives of those who carried out mass murder as well as the experiences and responses of Jews and other victim groups to persecution. We will also examine the Holocaust within the larger context of the history of World War II in Europe and historians¿ debates about Germany¿s exterminatory war aims. Course materials will include diaries, speeches, bureaucratic documents, memoirs, films, and historical scholarship. [ more ]

REL 297 TTheorizing Magic

Last offered Fall 2017

This is a course about magic. It is not about stage magic, sleight of hand, or the art of pulling rabbits out of hats. You will learn no card tricks. But instead we will learn about those people who believed in the reality of certain powers; from the ability to summon good or evil spirits, transform base metals into gold, predict the future, or manipulate matter by thought alone. The problem of how to theorize magic has long been a cause of concern for the natural and social sciences. Many a sociologist and anthropologist has imagined that belief in magic should have vanished with modernity (despite much evidence to the contrary). Meanwhile, philosophers of science have been long fascinated with the demarcation problem-figuring out grounds by which to distinguish legitimate sciences (like astronomy) from their magical or pseudoscientific cousins (like astrology). We will trace these discussions and problematize them by looking at the beliefs of self-defined witches and magicians. This should put is in a position to interrogate the construction of concepts of magic, science, and religion and show how the boundaries between these categories emerged historically. Topics to be discussed will include: the rationality of magic, the fine lines separating magic, science and religion, the persecution of witches, and the role notions of magic and superstition played in European modernization and colonization projects. The tutorial sessions will be customized to student interests, but texts will likely include selections from primary works in translation, such as Cornelius Agrippa's Occult Philosophy, Giordano Bruno's On Magic, Aleister Crowley's Magick Liber Aba, as well as selections from secondary literature, perhaps including Marcel Mauss, A General Theory of Magic, Max Weber, "Science as Vocation," Tanya Luhrmann, Persuasions of the Witches' Craft, Thomas Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Larry Laudan, "The Demise of the Demarcation Problem," E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Witchcraft and Oracles, and Magic among the Azande, and/or Kelly Hayes, Holy Harlots: Femininity, Sexuality and Black Magic in Brazil. [ more ]

REL 300Dialectics and the Archaeology of Knowledge

Last offered Spring 2012

How might one perform a philosophical study of history? How do ideas (including philosophical, artistic and religious movements) advance over time? What makes something "thinkable" in one era, but inconceivable in another? What contemporary intellectual foundations rest on false universals? This course will address these questions and provide students with methods for exploring the historical dimension of religion. It will focus on two approaches to the philosophy of history inspired by Kant. One school (Hegel, Marx) has focused on tracing dialectical formations as the background against which all history unfolds. Another school (Foucault, Agamben) performs "philosophical archeology," which Foucault described as "the history of that which renders necessary a certain form of thought." This course will introduce students to these intertwined bodies of theory, which promise to do nothing less than expose bare the very foundations of knowledge and transform the study of history from the stringing together of events into a philosophical enterprise. Thinkers to be considered may include: Kant, Hegel, Marx, Engels, Nietzsche, Foucault, Agamben, and Jameson. [ more ]

REL 301Social Construction

Last offered Fall 2018

"Social construction" can often seem like the great collegial insight. By now, you've all heard that categories such as race, gender, and sexuality are in some sense not part of nature, but instead are created and maintained socially or culturally. The idea of social construction has been vital to critical race theory and queer theory, and, in this course, we will push ourselves into philosophy of science to see whether or not these same insights apply to everything. If we know that "Whiteness," "heterosexuality," and "masculinity," for instance, are all socially constructed, we will ask if the same is true of "electrons," "money," "the solar system," and "climate change." Can it be that all of our reality is socially constructed? Or does social construction have limits? If so, what are they? We will also ask more fundamental questions, such as: What does it mean to say something is socially constructed? How does social construction relate to claims that an aspect of the world is "real" or "not real?" Is social construction a theory about language, power, culture, societies, human perceptions, or the limits of science? What kind of political, ethical, ontological, or epistemological work do theories of social construction do? We will begin with different accounts of the social construction of race, gender, and sexuality. In the second part of the course, we will dig deeper into philosophical debates about social construction as such. Then we will explore constructionism about natural science. In the last part of the course, we will change gears and explore look at cutting-edge work in the theory of social science aimed at explaining the construction and ontology of social worlds. The class will culminate in a project in which students will put their social construction theories into practice. [ more ]

REL 302 TPhilosophy of Religion

Last offered Spring 2020

Our goal will be to determine how far reason can justify belief in God. We will examine well-known philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God (including the ontological argument, the cosmological argument, the teleological argument, the argument from religious experience, and the argument from evil). For each argument, we will first look at historically important formulations and then turn to contemporary reformulations. Our aim will be to identify and evaluate the strongest version of each argument. After working through these arguments, we will reflect more generally on the proper roles of reason and faith in justifying religious belief. Near the end of the semester, we'll also examine some evolutionary explanations of religious belief. Our tools in this course will be logic and reason, even when we are trying to determine what the limits of reason might be. Authors will include Plato, Anselm, Aquinas, Pascal, Paley, Hume, Kant, Kierkegaard, and several contemporary philosophers. [ more ]

REL 303(F)Augustine's Confessions

No thinker has done more to shape the Western intellectual tradition than Augustine (354-430 CE), and no book displays Augustine's dynamic vision of reality more compellingly than the Confessions. Its probing and intimate reflections on the meaning of human life, the nature of God and mind, time and eternity, will and world, good and evil, love and sexuality have challenged every generation since Augustine's own. The seminar will be structured around a close, critically engaged reading of the Confessions (in English translation) and will give attention to its historical context and significance as well as to its philosophical and theological ideas. (There will be optional, supplementary opportunity to engage with the Latin text for interested students with some facility with Latin.) [ more ]

REL 304From Hermeneutics to Post-Coloniality and Beyond

Last offered Fall 2010

This course explores and critiques some of the resources offered by "Theory" for making sense of our contemporary situation, focusing on the nature of interpretation and its role in the construction of the self in a global world. We start with Gadamer's hermeneutics, which offers a classical formulation of the philosophy of liberal arts education, stressing the importance of questioning one's prejudices. Although this approach offers important resources for understanding ourselves in a world of cultural differences, it also has limitations, which we explore through the works of Derrida, Foucault and Said. In this way, we question some of the notions central to understanding ourselves such as identity and difference, suggesting some of the difficulties in the ever more important yet problematic project of knowing oneself. We also suggest that representation is not innocent but always implicated in the world of power and its complexities, particularly within the colonial and postcolonial contexts explored by Said. We conclude with a critique of the constructivist paradigm central to this course done from the point of view of cognitive sciences and suggest that the future of "Theory" may well be in a dialogue with the emerging mind sciences. Reading list: H.G. Gadamer, Truth and Method. F. Saussure, Course in General Linguistics. J. Derrida, Of Grammatology. P. Rabinow, Foucault Reader. E. Said, Orientalism. Agamben, Homo Sacer. [ more ]

REL 306Feminist Approaches to Religion

Last offered Spring 2011

What does feminist theory have to offer the study of religion? How have participants in various religious traditions helped to produce and enact feminisms? Feminisms and religion have a long though often troubled history of interconnection. In this course, we shall explore a range of feminist theoretical analyses that have either emerged out of particular religious contexts or have been applied to the study of religious traditions and practices. We shall consider how conflicts within feminism--especially those pertaining to issues of sexuality, race, class, nationality, ethnicity, and religious affiliation--make a difference for the ways that religion is interpreted and practiced. [ more ]

REL 307Thinking Gods: Cognitive Theories of Religion

Last offered Spring 2009

Although it is still in its infancy, the so-called "cognitive turn" has already become one of the most exciting contemporary developments in the study of religion. During the past twenty years, scholars influenced by cognitive science have begun to formulate new models and challenge old assumptions about human religiosity and its relationship to the mind. In so doing, they have articulated theories about the evolutionary origins of religious concepts, reassessed the role of memory and of counterintuitive explanations in the perpetuation of religious ideas, and developed new concepts such as "theological incorrectness" and "systematic anthropomorphism." By examining the cutting-edge work produced by members of this movement on both sides of the Atlantic, this seminar for advanced students will trace the historical roots of the cognitive turn and introduce some of its most important recent products. Authors to be considered include Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Feuerbach, Jean-Pierre Dupuy, D. Jason Slone, Pascal Boyer, Veikko Anttonen, Scott Atran, Richard Dawkins, Dan Sperber, and Ilkka Pyysiäinen. [ more ]

REL 308(S)What is Power?

What is power? Despite the importance of notions of power across the social sciences, there is a broad lack of consensus. Is power essentially domination or resistance? Is it freedom, empowerment, privilege, or oppression? Are there forms of unequal social power which are morally neutral or even good? Is power the kind of thing held by individuals, races, genders, classes, discourses, causal mechanisms, institutions, or social structures? What is the connection between social and physical power? Does power obey laws? How does power relate to technology? Or knowledge? Or agency? Or ideology? This course begins with the observation that power is often described as a causal relation--an individual's power is supposed to equal their capacity to produce a change in someone else's behavior. This suggests that the better we can understand the nature of cause and effect, the better we can understand power. Fortunately, in recent decades philosophers have made significant progress in theorizing causation. Hence, this seminar will put two very different bodies of theory in conversation: critical theory about power and philosophy of science about cause and effect. We will trace classic philosophical accounts of power and causation (in European and Chinese philosophy), as well as more recent developments in philosophy of science, political theory, and other fields. The insights we gain in this course from analyzing the nature of power should empower us to more effectively transform society. It will help students in the social sciences to understand the nature of causation in the social world, and it will help students interested in political action to better understand the nature of power. Thinkers to be considered may include: Aristotle, Amy Allen, Hannah Arendt, Bourdieu, Judith Butler, Nancy Cartwright, Foucault,Gramsci, Byung-Chul Han, Han Feizi, Giddens, Hobbes, Hume, Locke, Steven Lukes, Machiavelli, J.L. Mackie, Marx, Nietzsche, Sunzi, and Max Weber. [ more ]

REL 309 TScriptures and Race

Last offered Spring 2018

This course focuses on the relationships between constructions of race in the post-1492 American world and "Christian scriptures." The big questions of the course examine the ways that contestations of power are intertwined with the making of, interpretation, and transformation of sacred texts. Both scriptures and race are conceptual constellations of human social imagination, and yet their conceptualization has often been embroiled in the hopes and traumas of everyday life in the Americas. How and why did these two terms come to have any relationship to each other? How and why do peoples engage "scriptures"? In what ways have "scriptures" informed how people imagine themselves, their communities, and their relationship to religious and racial "others"? How did "scriptures" and "race" inform each other in modern colonialisms and imperialisms? In this course, we will examine the ways that scriptures have been employed in order to understand and develop notions of race, and we will examine how ideas about and lived experiences of race have informed the concept of scriptures as well as practices of scriptural interpretation. [ more ]

REL 310Womanist/Black Feminist Thought

Last offered Fall 2018

This course explores the genealogy and development of black feminist and womanist thought. We will investigate the expansion of womanist thought from a theologically dominated discourse to a broader category of critical reflection associated more commonly with black feminism, analyze the relationship between womanism and black feminism, and review the historical interventions of black feminism. As critical reflections upon western norms of patriarchy, heterosexism, and racism, womanism and black feminism begin with the assumption that the experiences of women of color--particularly black women--are significant standpoints in modern western society. Through the examination of interdisciplinary and methodological diversity within these fields, students will be introduced to key figures including Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and Katie Cannon, and will engage materials that draw from multiple fields, including, but not limited to, literature, history, anthropology, and religious studies. [ more ]

REL 311(S)Islam and the Critical Study of Secularism

Since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, successive Islamist movements have sought to transform Muslim states along religious lines. In Euro-American discourses on political Islam, such blatant disregard for the separation of religion and state is often seen as a tragic failure of secularization. Islam, in other words, is understood as a religion out of place in the modern world. While the global resurgence of religion in the face of much scientific and material progress has tempered scholarly enthusiasm for the secularization thesis, contemporary Islamic religiosity is increasingly viewed as an aberration from the regular course of history. Moreover, as scholars rewrite the script of secularization by unearthing modern secularism's European-Christian heritage, they unwittingly bolster a narrative of civilizational difference between Islam and the secular West. Our understanding of Islam is thus inextricably tied to its oppositional framing as the other of secularism. In this course, we will critically assess Euro-centric representations of Islam as created through canonical and critical discourses on secularism. Rather than assuming a natural opposition between Islam and secularism, we will examine the various modalities of power, institutional formations, habits of thinking, normative presuppositions, and cultural and visceral sensibilities that configure their agonistic relationship. This examination amounts to deconstructing the very category of the secular in its cognitive and sensory dimensions. To accomplish this task, we will rely on the work of Talal Asad and his interlocutors in Religious Studies, Anthropology, Continental Philosophy, Postcolonial Studies, and Comparative Literature. The course content is divided into 2 modules. Module A: "Theorizations" will examine Euro-centric theories of secularism and problematize their portrayals of Islam as an intrinsically asecular religion. In Module B: "Secularism Beyond Europe," we will read postcolonial critiques of secularization and examine its alternative trajectories in non-European contexts. Crucially, we will shift from a conventional emphasis on the state by comparing Islamic and secular disciplines of subject formation. By the end of the course, students will be able to appreciate how secular legal, political, and cultural institutions have re-defined religion in the modern world. Further, they will be able to discern the ways in which contemporary Islamic movements are both responses to and manifestations of a global secular condition. [ more ]

REL 312The Mughal Empire: Power, Art, and Religion in India

Last offered Fall 2018

Established in the early 1500s, the Mughal Empire was one of the grandest and the longest to rule the Indian subcontinent for over three hundred years. Commanding unprecedented resources and administering a population of 100 to 150 million at its zenith--much larger than any European empire in the early modern world--the Mughals established a centralized administration, with a vast complex of personnel, money, and information networks. Mughal emperors were also political and cultural innovators of global repute. Moreover, while the Mughal dynasty was brought to an end with British colonial rule over India in 1857, the Mughal administrative structures and cultural influences continued to have a lasting impact on the British and later Indian states that followed. Centered around the intersection of the themes of power, patronage of art and architecture and religion, this course will ask: What factors contributed to the durability of the Mughal Empire for three centuries? How did global trade and innovations in taxation contribute to its wealth and stability? How did this dynasty of Muslim monarchs rule over diverse, and largely non-Muslim populations? How did they combine Persian cultural elements with regional ones to establish an empire that was truly Indian in nature? How were the Mughals viewed in their contemporary world of gunpowder empires like the Safavids of Persia and the Ottomans of Turkey? Readings will include the best of the recent scholarship on this vastly influential empire and a rich collection of primary sources, including emperor's memoirs, accounts of European travelers, and racy biographies, which will allow students make their own analysis. They will also have the opportunity to interpret paintings (some of which are held in the WCMA collections) and architecture. They will also discuss how the Mughals are remembered in South Asian film and music. [ more ]

REL 313(F)Humans and Bodies: Theories of Embodiment

What is the body? Does the body precede culture, or is the body a product of society? How does the self relate to the body? How are sexual, racial, and gendered identities formed in and through the body? And how does the self sense its "own" body, or how does the body sense and make the self? In this course, we'll query and theorize embodiment through examining classical approaches (e.g., Freud, Lacan, Merleau-Ponty) as well as more recent queer (e.g., Butler), trans (e.g., Salamon), and posthuman (Haraway) theories of embodiment. [ more ]

REL 314Racial and Religious Mixture

Last offered Spring 2020

The very term "mixture" implies that two or more distinct substances have been brought together. Distinctions of race and religion are social fictions; yet, the lived ramifications of these social fictions involve tense struggles over the boundaries of racial and religious communities. These boundaries are not just ideas but also practices. In the history of the Americas, mixed racial and religious identities and experiences have more often been the result of violent clashes than romantic encounters. Still, the romanticization of the New World as a geography that makes such mixtures possible reaches back to the earliest days of Spanish conquest in the Americas. This course critically reconsiders varying ways that racial and religious mixtures have been imagined, defined, challenged, negotiated, and survived under imaginative and legal rubrics of mestizaje, creolization, transculturation, passing, syncretism, religious hybridity, and mixed race studies. [ more ]

REL 315(F)Gender and Sexuality in Buddhism

This course introduces students to the core concepts of Buddhism, as well as historical Buddhist perspectives on gender equality, homosexuality and queerness, the body (masculine, feminine, androgynous), birth (literally and figuratively), sex, contraception, abortion, and clerical marriages throughout Buddhist Asia. We will investigate these issues through close readings of specific sections of the Buddhist canon, alongside secondary sources. Is Buddhism equitable regarding these issues? Does it depend on how one interprets texts? In addition to scriptural interpretations of these issues, we will explore socio-cultural developments beyond the text, including recent challenges to traditional interpretations. In this course, students will sample case studies that include an exploration of: pre-modern South Asian ideals of masculinity; the gender transformation of the bodhisattva Avalokitesvaraor Guanyin in China; love and grief; birth and fertility; abortion and ritual aftermath in contemporary Japan; the struggle for official recognition of Buddhist nuns in contemporary Thailand; as well as mindfulness practices for racial equality. Finally, this course includes brief experiential components on Buddhist meditation and ritual. No prior knowledge about Buddhism is required. [ more ]

REL 317Disenchantment, Modernity, and the Death of God

Last offered Fall 2014

A great many theorists have argued that the defining feature of modernity is the departure of the supernatural. They often argue that magic, religion, and some sense of cosmic significance have been replaced by technology, calculation, and bureaucratic protocol. This course will be driven by one question: Are they right? Put differently: Do cities and computers generate their own type of magic? Is God in fact dead? Religion clearly has not vanished, but has it become less authentic? Does the dissolution of Christian ethics produce nihilism or the positive revaluation of values? Does capitalism turn everything into a commodity or does it commercialize wonder? Does modernity mean alienation from nature, a withering of social community, the end of art, and a rejection of history, or is it humankind's liberation from the dogmas of the past? Will science and reason ultimately sweep away belief in ghosts, angels, and demons, or will we always be haunted? Students will read the major theorists of secularization, modernization, and disenchantment and will conduct independent research projects on various modern attempts to revive magic and re-enchant the world. Students will be instructed in the use physical and digital archives for original primary text research. Possible topics for student exploration are vast and include: occult sciences and new religious movements such as the Golden Dawn, Spiritualism, Theosophy, Voodoo, Neo-paganism, Wicca; and various artistic movements including Symbolism and Surrealism--all of which promised to supply antidotes to the meaninglessness of the modern age. Authors to be read may include: Nietzsche, Novalis, Comte, Max Weber, Tonnies, Walter Benjamin, Bernard Stiegler. [ more ]

REL 318California: Myths, Peoples, Places

Last offered Fall 2016

Crosslisting Between Paradise and Hell, between environmental disaster and agricultural wonderland, between Reagan and Berkeley, between a land of all nations and a land of multiracial enmity, a diversity of myths have been inscribed onto and pursued within the space we call California. How did certain narratives of California come to be, who has imagined California in certain ways, and why? What is the relationship between certain myths, the peoples who have imagined them, and the other peoples who have shared California dreams? In this course, we will examine some of the myths that surround California by looking at a few specific moments of interaction between the peoples who have come to make California home and the specific places in which they have interacted with each other. Of special interest will be imaginations of the Spanish missions, the Gold Rush, agricultural California, wilderness California, California as "sprawling multicultural dystopia," and California as "west of the west." [ more ]

REL 319(F)Milton's Paradise Lost

The course will consist primarily of a close reading of Milton's Paradise Lost, generally considered the greatest non-dramatic poem in English. Written by a blind regicide in hiding shortly after the English Revolution, the epic presents the first and greatest of all failed rebellions: Satan's rebellion against God and its tragic consequence, the fall of Adam and Eve in Eden. We will give attention to the poem's densely organized language and structure, but our primary concern will be the ethical and philosophical dilemmas that confront Satan and all of the fallen. [ more ]

REL 321Happy Holidays! A Comparative History of Commemorations and Festivals

Last offered Fall 2017

What do our holidays tell us about ourselves and our societies? This seminar in religious, political and cultural history is in two parts. In the first half, we will explore the major holidays and festivals that emerged in the Middle East among the three monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). It will examine how certain events became ritualized and then spread to different parts of the globe and were adapted to specific cultural situations. We will consider the role of myth and commemoration and how various religious holidays are celebrated in different ways around the world. The second part of the seminar focuses on secular holidays with particular attention to the Modern Middle East. Which events are commemorated and how and what are the political implications of these celebrations? [ more ]

REL 326 TQueer Temporalities

Last offered Spring 2017

Birth, childhood, adolescence, college, adulthood, career, marriage, family, mid-life, old age, death, afterlife. How are all these facets of being human imagined as stages in time, as axes on certain progressive lines that delineate human social relations? How do we experience and represent time, and what factors might account for both our experiences and our representations? What are some of the ways that people experience and mark the passing of time? What are some of the different ways that people have made sense of time and themselves in time? How have our conceptions of time and our demarcations of lifecycles shifted historically? How do people whose experiences do not align with dominant cultural social stages negotiate ideas of lifecycle and timing? Especially for individuals and peoples who have been denied self-representation and narratives of place, how do competing notions of time, history, space, and location get negotiated? In this course, drawing from within the broad corpus of queer theory (including theorists such as Gloria Anzaldúa, Elizabeth Freeman, J. Halberstam, and José Esteban Muñoz) we will examine some non-linear, non-normative, and interruptive approaches to making sense of time, space-time, and self within time. [ more ]

REL 327Theory after Postmodernism: New Materialisms and Realism

Last offered Spring 2014

Since the 1970s much of the academy has labored under a particular form of linguistic skepticism (often called postmodernism or poststructuralism) that is directed at the destruction of stable conceptions of subjectivity and meaning. It is often said that everything is a text and that all knowledge is power. But just as the typewriter has given way to the computer and disco to dubsteb, as we exit postmodernity new philosophies are appearing on the conceptual horizon. This course will layout this challenge to postmodernism by exploring the work of cutting edge theorists in French and American movements known as new materialism, speculative realism, and actor-network theory. Often drawing on work in ecology, feminism, science studies, neuroscience and complexity theory, these thinkers aim to reclaim knowledge of the real world, to suture the separation between the sciences and the humanities, and to overturn what they see as the dualism between matter (as dead or inert) and mind (as the locus of life and agency). By so doing, they claim to empower the object-world and dethrone humanity from the center of philosophy. Thinkers to be considered may include: Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Bruno Latour, Catherine Malabou, Quentin Meillassoux and Bernard Stiegler. While the relevance of these movements to the study of religion will be discussed, this course is intended for students of any major who wish to study critical, political, or philosophical theory. [ more ]

REL 330Modern Jewish Political Theory

Last offered Spring 2019

By the late 19th century, Jews across Europe were faced with an urgent political problem. Amidst bourgeoning national self-consciousness throughout the continent, despite the liberatory promises of the Enlightenment, Jews remained a vulnerable, segregated, and stigmatized minority population. Jews had to decide where to pin their hopes. Should they ally themselves with the liberals or the communists? Should they embrace nationalism or cosmopolitanism? Should they, perhaps, abandon Europe altogether and re-constitute themselves elsewhere? If so, should they focus their efforts on relocation to the historical land of Israel? Or could they go anywhere? Wherever they might go, should they aspire to build a modern Jewish nation-state, a semi-autonomous Jewish community, or some other arrangement? Should this coincide with the cultivation of a distinctively Jewish modern language? If so, should it be Hebrew or Yiddish? In this course we will assess various answers to these questions proffered by Jewish political thinkers in the modern period. We will pay particular attention to the construction of "Jews" and "Judaism" in these arguments. And we will ask persistently: what constitutes a "Jewish justification" for a political claim in modern Jewish political theory? Coverage will include: Jewish liberalism, political Zionism, Yiddishist autonomism, messianic quietism, and other views. We will read mostly primary sources, including texts by: Hermann Cohen, Theodore Herzl, Chaim Zhitlowsky, Franz Rosenzweig, Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, and many others. [ more ]

REL 332Islam and Feminism

Last offered Fall 2017

This course examines the relationship between feminism and Islam, focusing particularly on Islamic feminist scholarship. We will take a genealogical approach to our study of Islamic feminism tracing the different discourses that have informed and shaped the field. The first part of the course will begin with a critical examination of orientalist and colonial representations of Muslim women as oppressed and in need of liberation. We will then explore Muslim responses so such critiques that were entwined with nationalist and independence movements. This historical backdrop is critical to understanding why the question of women and their rights and roles become crucial to Muslim self-understanding and Islamic reform. The second part of the course will focus on major intellectuals and thinkers who have influenced Islamic feminism. Finally, the last part of our course will explore the breadth of Islamic feminist literature, covering the following themes: 1) feminist readings of scripture; 2) feminist critiques of Islamic law; and 3) feminist theology. [ more ]

REL 333(S)The Politics of Myth

Myths animate ethical and political life. Shared stories that function as sources of justification and motivation are reflected in our anxieties and aspirations, in how we talk, and in how we perform our identities. These are stories about the origins of our world, the founding of the political order, the forging of groups, the menace of enemies, the triumph of heroes, the ultimate destiny of humankind. In this course, we will explore the meaning of "myth" in our ethical and political lives. We will read and discuss a wide range of approaches to myth. For instance, readings may include works by Plato, medieval Jewish and Islamic philosophers, Friedrich Nietzsche, Georges Sorel, Ernst Cassirer, and Walter Benjamin. Particular attention will be given to a set of mid-twentieth century theorists of myth who have had an especially strong impact on the meaning of myth in American popular culture: Carl Jung, Mircea Eliade, and Joseph Campbell. We will assess the enduring resonance of their ideas and explore new opportunities to think critically and imaginatively about myth in this tradition, reading works by Wendy Doniger, Jeffrey Kripal, and other contemporary scholars in religious studies. These theoretical explorations will serve to enrich our efforts, throughout the course, to uncover the myths that animate our own lives. We will explore our myths through sustained introspection, interpretations of popular culture, and opportunities for myth-criticism and myth-making. Thus, in addition to the critical analysis of myths and myth theories, students will have the opportunity to play creatively with the possibilities of myth. The course will culminate in a final creative project engaging with the idea of myth. [ more ]

REL 334Imagining Joseph

Last offered Spring 2020

Beloved son, rival brother, faithful servant, dreamer, seer, object of desire, lover, husband, bureaucrat, Joseph is one of the most fully-limned and compelling figures in the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim scriptural traditions. The story of Joseph unfolds over fourteen chapters in the Hebrew Bible, and is the subject of the fourth longest sura in the Qur'an. Through millennia, the story of Joseph has inspired a wealth of interpretations, commentary, apocrypha, re-tellings, and back-story, including an apocryphal book of scripture about Joseph and his wife, Asenath, Sufi poetry about Joseph and Zuleikha (Potiphar's wife), a trilogy by the 20th century German novelist Thomas Mann, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Weber, and many expressions in Western visual art. The course will explore these various expressions, looking to them for the ways in which Joseph has captured the imaginations of peoples and cultures across time and space. The course will be organized as a collaborative seminar in which the class will read the foundational scriptures together, followed by thematic discussions to which students will contribute insights from their own readings of particular peripheral texts. Students will learn the pleasures of close and intense exegetical reading in approaching the Hebrew Bible and Qur'an, as well as the more expansive pleasures of linking post-scriptural expressions together. [ more ]

REL 335The Meaning of Diaspora and the Jews of Europe

Last offered Spring 2020

Dispersion, exile, migration, statelessness are all aspects of diaspora. In the study of diasporic peoples and cultures, the Jews have long figured as the archetype. As a result, Jewish political figures, intellectuals, social activists and scholars have played a central role in discussions of the meaning of diaspora, including debates about its political and social implications, economic value, and cultural significance. In the first half of the semester, in discussions of common readings, we will examine various historical interpretations of Jews¿ diasporic existence from the nineteenth century to the present and its implications for humanitarianism. Beginning in the first half of the semester and with greater intensity in the second half of the semester, you will conduct independent archival research on some aspect of the history of the Jewish diaspora using the digitized archives of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee that will culminate in a twenty-plus-page paper. In the second half, the seminar will continue to meet weekly as a research colloquium, to provide a forum for you to present your research and drafts in progress and to give feedback on fellow students¿ work. In this seminar, we are not merely studying history; you are actually doing history. That is to say, you will be more than students of history in this course: you will become historians in your own right. Over the semester, you will learn how to pose historical questions; to engage critically with readings beyond summarizing them; to synthesize an enormous amount of source material; and to learn how to write more clearly. By the end of the semester, the goal is for each student to produce a polished research paper based on substantial engagement with archival sources and relevant secondary literature that will serve as a capstone to your coursework at Williams or as a potential jumping-off point for future research projects, including a senior thesis in History or Jewish Studies. [ more ]

REL 337Zen and Philosophy: The Kyoto School and its Legacy in Japanese Thought

Last offered Spring 2015

Popularly regarded as the most important philosophical movement in modern Japanese history, the Kyoto School creatively marshaled the resources of Buddhism to address the impasses of Western philosophy to startling effect. Although the members of the Kyoto School were not all of one mind, their shared aims were ambitious: to bridge the dualism between subject and object, to overcome nihilism, to explore the implications of absolute nothingness, and to surmount what they saw as the chasm between Japanese and European thought. After providing some brief background in Japanese Buddhism, we will read the writings of the core thinkers of the Kyoto School: Nishida Kitaro, Tanabe Hajime, Nishitani Keiji, and some of their later protégés. Thematically, we will explore issues in ethics, epistemology, phenomenology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of religion; and demonstrate the continued relevance of their insights in these areas. Finally, we will reflect on the group's engagement with Japanese nationalism. All readings will be in translation. [ more ]

REL 338(F)Transhumanism: Religion, Technoscience, Obsolescence

This interdisciplinary seminar invites students to pursue sociohistorical analysis and sustained critical discussion of the transhumanist movement and its overriding aims: the augmentation, transformation, and eventual transcendence of human biological constitution; the realization, through speculative technoscientific means, of an enhanced or even "postbiological existence"--a "posthuman condition," "Humanity 2.0." Through close readings of primary historical documents, transhumanist texts, scholarship on transhumanism, works of science-fiction film, literature, and popular culture, we will position the movement as an empirical conduit through which to explore the sociohistorical conditions under which transhumanist ideas and practices have emerged, circulated, and taken up residence. To that end, we will consider the ties of transhumanism to eugenics and massive investments in pharmaceuticals, anti-aging medicine, and so-called "GNR" technologies (i.e. genetics, nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence and robotics); the movement's affinities with neoliberalism and what some have pointed to as transhumanism's racialized subtext of whiteness. We will furthermore devote considerable attention to the technological singularity, the figure of the cyborg, mind-uploading, space colonization, and cryonic suspension, all of which, like transhumanism broadly, suggest that science and technology have in some sense come to operate as powerful channeling agents for the very sorts of beliefs, practices, and forms of association that theorists of secularization expected modernity to displace. Lastly, throughout the course of the seminar we will take transhumanism as a provocation to think broadly and seriously about religion, technology, embodiment, and ways of being human. [ more ]

REL 340Science, Religion, and the (post)colony: Critical approaches to the global history of knowledge

Last offered NA

Histories of science and religion have been deeply intertwined with colonial and postcolonial history. Colonial claims to legitimacy were often rooted in perceptions of scientific and technological superiority, and colonial expansion often marched in lockstep with missionary activity and forced conversions. In the process, race and human difference emerged as concepts at the intersection of scientific and religious discourses and was forged within the colonial framework. This colonial history of science and religion impacted how scientific and religious thought, practices and institutions developed through the period of decolonization and into today. Similarly, the attendant history of race and human difference continues to influence postcolonial and contemporary discourses around race, ethnicity, identity and migration. In this course, we will trace key moments in the history of science and religion and their relation to coloniality. We will start in the sixteenth century with the rise of modern European empires, move into the height of modern colonialism, indigenous genocides and chattel slavery, and trace decolonization from the middle of the nineteenth into today. Throughout, we will investigate how science and religion emerged as concepts, practices and institutions, and how these narratives impacted, and were impacted by colonial expansion and history. We will pay particular attention to questions of race, gender, sexuality and human difference as key concepts and practices that emerged at the intersections of science, religion and (post)colonialism [ more ]

Taught by: TBA

Catalog details

REL 346Islam and Anthropology

Last offered Spring 2016

If anthropology has helped to define Islam in global thought, Islam has returned the favor, holding a critical mirror to the anthropological endeavor perhaps more than any other traditional "object" of study. This course examines anthropological studies of Islamic societies for what they teach us both about Islam and about anthropology. We begin with foundational social theorists whose studies of religious phenomena helped give rise to the field of anthropology of religion. We then survey influential efforts to construct "ideal-type" models of Muslim society based on anthropological and historical knowledge, alongside efforts to critique, historicize, and redirect the model-building project (notably by Talal Asad and Edward Said). The second half of the course is devoted to ethnographies that explore, from a variety of perspectives and in several regions (Morocco, India, Egypt, Syria), questions of human agency, hierarchy and resistance, and Islam as discursive resource, ethical project, and embodied community. [ more ]

REL 348Religion and Reason

Last offered Spring 2018

In his most famous and provocative book, The End of Faith, the "New Atheist" author Sam Harris very forcefully brings our attention to the dangerous clash between faith and reason, lamenting humanity's willingness to suspend reason in favor of religious beliefs. This represents a pervasive trend of thought in the modern world that sees religion as being diametrically opposed to reason and rationality. This course is an in-depth investigation of this notion through the lenses of philosophy, theology, anthropology, and history, asking questions such as: What is reason, and what counts as a rational belief? Are there other grounds that might make one justified in holding a belief? What is the nature of religious belief or faith? Is religious belief uniquely irrational? What gave rise to this discourse on religion? We will be reading primary and secondary materials representing a variety academic disciplines, intellectual traditions, and geographic contexts. [ more ]

REL 350Max Weber & Critical Theory or Rationalization & Its Discontents

Last offered Spring 2017

We live in an age characterized by unprecedented technological and scientific progress--we have unraveled the building blocks of life, witnessed the birth of stars at the edge of the galaxy, and harnessed the power of the atom--and yet modern life often appears fundamentally meaningless and lacking in ultimate value--we work, we eat, we excrete, we die, perhaps in the interim shuffling paperwork, sucking up to our boss, and asking ourselves, "What kind of dining set defines me as a person?" Few thinkers have explored the roots of this modern ennui as thoroughly as Max Weber, a German sociologist often regarded as the single most important social theorist of the twentieth century. Weber wanted to know why it was European civilization in particular that gave birth to the grand trifecta of rationality, science, and capitalism and how we have become enslaved by the very things that were supposed to have set us free. Weber's key innovation was to trace the grand trajectory of Western "rationalization"--the historical attempt to produce a world in which "one can, in principle, master all things by calculation." Further, he demonstrated how this rationalization produced not just mastery over nature, but also "the disenchantment of the world" - value fragmentation, hyper-specialization, bureaucracy, and ultimately the "iron cage" of modernity. The first part of this course will follow in Weber's footsteps by studying his theory of rationalization and by exploring it in different social spheres, such as the economy, the law, the professions, and the secularization of religion. The second half of the course will look at Weber's legacy in Critical Theory. It will show how thinkers such as Theodor Adorno, Georges Bataille, Jürgen Habermas, Max Horkheimer, Michael Löwy, and Alasdair MacIntyre suggested various lines of flight from the iron cage of modernity. [ more ]

REL 352Mystic Spirituality in Black Women's Social Justice Activism: Brazil-USA

Last offered Spring 2018

This course examines the meanings and manifestations of mystic spirituality in the lives and work of selected Black women artists/activists in the USA and Brazil. The writings of Lucille Clifton (poet), Rosemarie Freeney Harding (activist and counselor) and Makota Valdina Pinto (activist and Candomblé ritual elder) are key texts for our exploration of the uses of mystic sensibilities and Afro-Atlantic ritual traditions--such as dreams and visions, prayer, divination, sacred dance, healing rites and other forms of unmediated intimate encounter with the sacred--as resources for creativity, community organizing, self-care and as aspects of political and social critique in African American and Afro-Brazilian contexts. The methodology of the course blends historical, literary and womanist approaches in an investigation of the conjunctions of spiritual practice and activism in the experience of women in the Afro-Atlantic diaspora. [ more ]

REL 354Friedrich Nietzsche: Philosophizing with a Hammer

Last offered Spring 2018

In one of his last major writings, Twilight of the Idols (Götzen-Dämmerung, 1889), Friedrich Nietzsche described his project as an attempt to sound out various established philosophical truths or intellectual "idols," saying, "they will be touched here with a hammer as with a tuning fork, these are the oldest, most convinced, puffed-up, and fat-headed idols you will ever find...And also the most hollow." To be sure, Nietzsche directed his often combative prose against everything from traditional religion to philosophy itself. Nietzsche is one of the most frequently cited and most frequently misunderstood philosophers of our current era. By reading Nietzsche's writings in context, this course will attempt to liberate Nietzsche from his later reputation. We will think with and sometimes against Nietzsche, focusing on his notions of religion, mythology, power, morality, and enlightenment, and we will pay special attention to his reflections on the limits of reason/knowledge. Along the way, students will get a new sense of Nietzsche's most famous theoretical formulations including "the death of God," the Übermensch, and the split between Dionysian/Apollonian modes of thought. [ more ]

REL 358Religion and Law

Last offered Spring 2019

This course explores the concept of "law" through an investigation of the complex relationship between law, ethics, and religion. In doing so, we will look at legal theoretical texts as well as legal anthropological studies to pose critical questions about the nature of law, the functioning logic of law, the relationship between law and lived experience, and the legal construction of categories and facts. In the course, we will consider two intersections of religion and law: the particularities of religious legal traditions and the relationship between religion and secular law. Topics will include the secular legal construction of religion, the relationship between law and ethics, the nature of legal hermeneutics, and the racial, gender, and sexual politics of legal interpretation. [ more ]

REL 374 TMysticism: Vision, Writing, History

Last offered Spring 2020

The promise of God's real presence in the world lies at the heart of Christianity as a messianic and scriptural faith. But mystics, who seek out and bear witness to their own experiences of the divine, have often been viewed with suspicion by church and state authorities. At stake in these confrontations between orthodoxy and the individual witness are questions of knowledge and power. To whom does God speak, who speaks for God, and how can anyone, whether mystic or priest, be certain? We will learn how these questions have inflected certain passages in the history of Christian belief and practice: the flourishing culture of mystical writing by medieval women, the efforts of some Protestant sects to distribute authority more horizontally, and early modern philosophers' criticisms of prophecy and fanaticism. But our deepest concerns will be literary and aesthetic. What modes of writing did mystics use to express what was, in fact, inexpressible? What role did visual art play in visionary experience? And how has mysticism influenced the work two of the twentieth century's most significant theorists of language, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Jacques Derrida? [ more ]

REL 376(F)Islam and Capitalism

Islam and Capitalism are two widely debated and yet increasingly elusive phenomena of our contemporary age. This course offers a chronological and thematic study of the conceptual and material entanglements between Islam and Capitalism. The mere juxtaposition of Islam and Capitalism is beset with conceptual difficulty and anachronism: can Islam be conceived as a religion proper given the Shari'a's extensive regulation of commercial life? Is faith in the providence of free markets akin to religious belief? Are Islam and Capitalism universal goods, or are they isomorphic to distinct cultures? Does the simultaneous rise of Islamic banking and "halal" consumerism signal a revolt against capitalist modernity, or does it mark the domestication of religion by forces of the market? How do Islamic conceptions of socioeconomic justice and ecological preservation respond to the environmental crises of Capitalism and the Anthropocene? We will explore these questions and address their underlying assumptions from within the disciplinary frameworks of History, Anthropology, and Religious Studies. In terms of theory, students will comprehend key debates and methodological approaches to the broader study of religion and capitalism, including formal resemblances between theological concepts and theorizations of the market; the analytical purchase of binary oppositions between religion (enchantment) and economics (rationality); the cultural embeddedness of markets versus their formalistic autonomy; postcolonial critiques of corporate sovereignty and neoliberalism; and, finally, economic/ecological assemblages and "religious economies." In addition to harnessing theoretical tools of analysis, students will also acquire substantial knowledge of the Shari'a, its commercial laws, institutions, and contracts by studying the history of commerce in Muslim societies from 7th-century agrarianism to contemporary Islamic finance. The diverse topics, regions, and periods covered in the course are organized into 5 modules: (1) theoretical concepts in religion and economics; (2) the Shari'a and Islamic commercial law; (3) commerce in medieval Islam; (4) modernity, colonialism, and industrial capitalism; and, finally, (5) globalization, modern Islamic finance, and environmentalism. [ more ]

REL 401(F)Issues in the Study of Religion

To be conducted as a working seminar or colloquium. Major issues in the study of religious thought and behavior will be taken up in a cross-cultural context enabling the student to consolidate and expand perspectives gained in the course of the major sequence. Topics will vary from year to year. In keeping with the seminar framework, opportunity will be afforded the student to pursue independent reading and research. [ more ]

REL 412 T(F)Gandhi: History, Ideas and Legacy

This course studies the life, work, and ideas of M.K. Gandhi (1869-1948), one of the most influential thinkers of the non-western world. Gandhi is well known today for his philosophy of non-violent resistance and its application in India's freedom struggle as well as his influence on the work of leaders like Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Hailed as the 'father of the Indian nation', however, Gandhi is not only known for his political ideas but also for his deep engagement with aspect of everyday human behavior and morality: truth, vegetarianism, sex and celibacy, to name just a few of his obsessions which contributed to making his broader philosophy. It is this commitment to a morally pure life that earned him the title of 'Mahatma' or Great Soul in India. This tutorial will focus on three key aspects of Gandhi: his ideas of peaceful protest as means of social and political change, his contemplations on moral philosophy, and on his legacy in modern India and the world. Students will read a combination of Gandhi's own writings as well as journal articles, monographs and films. The course will probe questions such as: What was the context and nature of Gandhian nationalism? Did it help to integrate the Indian nation? Was Gandhi truly a Great Soul, a saint or a shrewd politician? In what ways is Gandhi received and remembered by the Indian nation today? How does understanding a figure like Gandhi facilitate our understanding of modern nationalism, citizenship and political action? [ more ]

REL 421(S)Picturing God in the Middle Ages

How did medieval Europeans imagine their God and how did they give what they imagined pictorial form? How were these pictures used, both in public and in private life, and why? Paying particular attention to the function and experience of medieval works of art, this seminar will examine the evolution of images of God, in both the Eastern and Western halves of Europe, and the problems these images often generated. Through readings and class discussion, the course will investigate, among other specific topics: the varied attitudes toward the representability of God in Judaism, Islam, and Christianity; the impact of the Roman cult of the emperor and of images of the dead on the earliest portraits of Christ; the cult of the icon, concerns over idolatry, and the destruction of images; ideas about spiritual versus physical vision and their influence on the making and viewing of pictures; the relationship of sacred images to relics, the Eucharist, and other aspects of Christian ritual; and the pictorial exploration of both the torture and sexuality of Christ. Students will also pursue an individual research project, in which they will examine in greater depth a specific depiction of divinity of their choosing, in light of what we have considered together in the seminar. [ more ]

REL 422Art, Architecture, and Poetry: Islamic Devotional Culture in South Asia

Last offered Spring 2019

How have scholars interpreted and classified terms such as "Islamic art" and "Muslim culture," and how have these classifications affected the interpretation of the arts in South Asia? There are different points of view regarding what constitutes as "Islamic" art and culture. Is an imperial wine cup with "God is Great" inscribed on it an "Islamic" object? How is an erotic epic narrating the romance of a Hindu prince understood as embodying the principles of Muslim devotion? This interdisciplinary seminar, focusing on South Asian Muslim devotional culture as articulated through the material culture, the arts of the book, architecture, and poetry, will navigate these questions from two perspectives. The first is to understand how Muslim devotional cultural expression in South Asia circumscribes and interprets itself. The second viewpoint is that of scholarship and the various interpretive voices that have framed the field over the last century. [ more ]

REL 493(F)Senior Thesis: Religion

Religion senior thesis; this is part of a full-year thesis (493-494). [ more ]

REL 494(S)Senior Thesis: Religion

Religion senior thesis; this is part of a full-year thesis (493-494). [ more ]